Earlier this year, Brunel University published a challenging new piece of research that looked at how stereotypes and expectations about ageing are related to feelings of loneliness in older age. Using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), the researchers examined whether peoples’ expectations of feeling lonely in older age was linked to later experiences of it. They then looked at how somebody’s general view of old age is linked to feelings of loneliness in later life.

What did the researchers find?

In 2002, older people taking part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) were asked the extent to which they agreed with two statements:

  • Statement one: As I get older I expect to get more lonely
  • Statement two: Old age is time of loneliness

The first statement asked about personal expectations of older age. They second statement gauged whether a person held any negative stereotypes about older people and loneliness. Respondents could answer the statements on a scale that ranged from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’.

The study found there were 4,465 people who did not feel lonely in 2002 who also gave answers to both of these statements. 32% of this group strongly or slightly agreed with the statement that they expected to get lonelier as they get older and 24% agreed with the statement that old age is a time of loneliness.

As ELSA asks respondents to answer a questionnaire every two years, the researchers were able to ‘follow’ the people that agreed with either statement and see what their experience of loneliness was as they grew older. They discovered that, 8 years on, the people who agreed with statement one had a 2.32 increased likelihood of experiencing loneliness as they grew older compared to people who disagreed. Those who agreed with statement two were 2.83 times more likely to report feelings of later on, when compared with those who did not agree with the statement.

This demonstrates that certain expectations of and stereotypes about loneliness can predict whether someone actually experiences it in later life. These associations remained even when other factors that might make someone vulnerable to loneliness – such as older age, living alone and depression – were taken into account.

What are the implications for practice?

This study presents compelling evidence for more interventions aimed at challenging age-related stereotypes and raising expectations about older age. These interventions could include positive ageing initiatives or anti-ageism campaigns. The researchers suggest that this preventative approach may have more of an impact on reducing loneliness than services that try to address it after someone has started to experience it.