Academic journal article Social Work Research

The Role of Social Relationships in Predicting Loneliness: The National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project

Academic journal article Social Work Research

The Role of Social Relationships in Predicting Loneliness: The National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project

Article excerpt

The authors explore associations between objective and subjective social network characteristics and loneliness in later life, using data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, a nationally representative sample of individuals ages 57 to 85 in the United States. Hierarchical linear regression was used to examine the associations between measures of objective and subjective social network characteristics and their importance in predicting loneliness across marital status. For the entire sample, as well as the married-cohabitating subsample, objective indicators such as frequency of contact with social network members were negatively associated with feelings of loneliness, net of background characteristics. However, the authors' analysis highlights the contribution of subjective perceptions of social ties, the quality of marriage in later life for those engaged in marital or cohabitating relationships, and the quality of familial ties for the nonmarried older adults. In a married-cohabitating subsample, the subjective perceptions of one's relationship with the partner explained, by itself, 7% of the variance in loneliness, whereas the quality of family ties explained an additional 6% of the variance in loneliness in the nonmarried sample. Based on the present findings, practical implications for social workers are discussed.

KEY WORDS: later life; loneliness; social networks; subjective perceptions


In research, multiple definitions of loneliness have been proposed. Yet almost uniformly, a distinction has been made between loneliness and aloneness (Andersson, 1998). Loneliness is approached as a discrete, subjective construct associated with the objective social situation but not synonymous with the actual circumstances. Thus, people can feel lonely in the company of many others or be alone without feeling lonely. It also has been agreed that loneliness is a painful or unpleasant experience (Peplau & Perlman, 1982).

Cognitive theory, which is a major theoretical approach guiding loneliness research, focuses on one's perception and evaluation of social ties. Loneliness, according to this theoretical point of view, results from the perceived discrepancy between desired and actual social relationships or the subjective gap between one's optimal levels of social relationships and achieved levels of same. A perceived deficit in one's social interactions is crucial in creating a sense of loneliness. Past experience and experience of other people in the social environment shape this evaluation process. Contrary to other important theoretical views of loneliness, such as the social needs approach (represented by Weiss, 1973, 1987), cognitive theory suggests an indirect relation between objective deficits in one's social network and feelings of loneliness. Cognitive processes of perception and evaluation serve as mediators (de Jong Gierveld, 1998; Peplau & Perlman, 1982).

In recent years, interest in aging and loneliness has grown for two primary reasons. First, loneliness is a socially prevalent phenomenon among elderly people. For example, in a representative sample of British community-dwelling older people, almost 40% experienced loneliness to some degree (Victor, Scambler, Bowling, & Bond, 2005). Similar prevalence rates were recently found in Finland among a random sample of people age 75 and over (Savikko, Routasalo, Tilvis, Strandberg, & Pitkala, 2005). In the United States, Theeke (2007) reported that approximately 17% of people age 50 and above reported loneliness.

Second, loneliness can have deleterious effects in multiple domains of elders' lives, including both physical and mental health. In the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study, loneliness was associated with elevated systolic blood pressure, even after controlling for demographics, health behaviors, and various psychosocial factors. Moreover, loneliness was a unique predictor of age-related increases in systolic blood pressure (Hawkley, Masi, Berry, & Cacioppo, 2006). …

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