The Effects of Gender and Marital Status on Loneliness of the Aged

Article excerpt

This study explored the qualitative aspects of loneliness in the elderly. Eighty-nine men were compared to 239 women in the age range of 61-94. A 30-item yes/no loneliness questionnaire was utilized to compare the loneliness experience in the two samples. The questionnaire comprises 5 qualitative dimensions of loneliness, namely Emotional distress, Social inadequacy and alienation, Growth and discovery, Interpersonal isolation, and Self - alienation. Results confirmed the hypothesis that women experience loneliness significantly differently from men. Women scored significantly higher on the Growth and discovery subscale. The two groups were also compared to see whether marital status affected the experience of loneliness. Results showed a significant main effect only for men. Married men had lower subscale scores on the Interpersonal isolation subscale than did the unmarried.

Keywords: loneliness, the elderly, marital status, gender, loneliness questionnaire, growth and discovery subscale.

Recent studies suggest that a large proportion of the population feel lonely frequently (Rokach & Brock, 1997). U.S surveys indicate that a quarter of North Americans report having felt lonely in the past four weeks (Perlman, 2004). Loneliness has been linked to depression, anxiety, and interpersonal hostility (Hansson, Jones, Carpenter, & Remondet, 1986), to increased vulnerability to health problems (Jones, Rose, & Russell, 1990), and even to suicide (Cutrona, 1982; Medora & Woodward, 1986). Rook (1988) observed that loneliness results from the interaction of personal factors and situational constraints. That interaction is closely associated with the changing life circumstances which one encounters.

As Rokach (1988) indicated, loneliness is a universal phenomenon, embedded in the human experience since the beginning of time. Those changing circumstances, life events, and opportunities undoubtedly affect the manner in which people experience, evaluate, and cope with life's demands. It therefore stands to reason that the experience of loneliness, as well as the manner in which different age groups approach and cope with it, would differ at various stages in life (Rokach & Brock, 1998). Ernst and Cacioppo (1999) asserted that there is an overall positive correlation between loneliness and age. "The population is aging. Baby boomers are approaching retirement age, and individuals over age 85 make up the single fastest-growing segment of the population. Our society is faced with quickly finding answers to questions about longevity and quality of life that, because they pertained to so few people, were not matters of urgency just a few decades ago" (Williamson, Shaffer, & Parmelee, 2000; p. xi).

The present study aims at understanding, explaining, and highlighting the various facets of loneliness as experienced by the elderly. Traditionally, age 65 has been seen as an age in which one may be considered "old". That is the age at which various laws mandate retirement. People in their 60s and 70s encounter changes in their bodies, their functioning, and in their environment (Darley, Glucksberg, & Kinchla, 1991). Amongst those changes that the elderly face are declining health, possible cognitive changes, retirement and life style changes, death of a spouse and other significant losses (such as the death of friends).

Due to increased life expectancy, better living conditions (at least in Western culture) and advances in medicine, the relative proportion of the older population is growing. (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2005). In 1900, only 4% of the population were aged 65 or over. Today, only a century later, this segment accounts for 12.4% of the U.S. population (U.S. Administration on Aging, 2002). Demographics predict that by 2030 the population of those 65 and older may grow to 25% of the U.S. population, a staggering increase of 100% in only 25 years.

As Arber, Davidson, and Ginn (2003) observed, age represents a marker for several distinctive processes within older people's lives. …