Loneliness across life phases
During adulthood, roughly from 18 to 65 years, we pass through several life phases, with every life phase having specific behaviors and goals that are normative for that phase. Being in your twenties or early thirties, for instance, means that you might have to have an active, blossoming social life and be preparing for your dream job. Moreover, during your mid-thirties and your forties, you might be trying hard to balance your career, the upbringing of your children and the care for aging parents. After reaching the age of 50, the importance of and focus on your career might decrease, while the time with your loved ones will become more important.
In general, if a person cannot meet his or her age-normative behaviors and goals, they may perceive loneliness.
In general, if a person cannot meet his or her age-normative behaviors and goals, they may perceive loneliness. One could expect that if the behaviors and goals differ per life phase, the factors associated with loneliness might follow the same pattern.
To explore whether the factors associated with loneliness change as people age, we used data from a large regional health survey, the Adult Health Monitor. Participants of this survey were asked about their subjective feelings of loneliness, demographic factors, social and health-related factors. Differences between three groups, young adults (19-34), early middle-aged adults (35-49) and late middle-aged adults (50-65), were analyzed.
In line with what we expected, we found that some of the factors associated with loneliness differ for the various life phases. Firstly, for young adults a stronger association between frequency of contact with friends and lower levels of loneliness was observed, compared to early and late middle-aged adults. This is exactly what was expected as, in your twenties, friends are some of the most important people in your life. Secondly, having a job was associated with lower levels of loneliness only for early middle-aged adults, which links to the career ambitions people might have at this age. For late middle-aged adults, those who were married experienced lower levels of loneliness. Again, we expected to find this, considering that emotional closeness increases with age.
Some factors associated with loneliness were not influenced by age, such as social exclusion and perceiving psychological distress.
In addition, our study has demonstrated that some factors associated with loneliness were not influenced by age, such as social exclusion and perceiving psychological distress. Remarkably, most of these factors are indicators for psychological health. This seems to demonstrate that psychological problems are associated with loneliness, no matter what age you are.
Particularly during the current COVID-19 pandemic, psychological health may be threatened. And on top of that, COVID-19 impacts adults differently according to the important factors of their life phase as well. For example, young adults are not able to interact with their friends or classmates face to face anymore. Early middle-aged adults have to work from home, while supervising their children and worrying about their aging parents, whereas for late middle-aged adults visiting their loved ones has become impossible.
So, whatever age you are, the risk of loneliness is always there, lurking in the background. And maybe now more than ever.
The best way to deal with loneliness
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to prevent or combat loneliness
If the factors associated with loneliness change when people age, then what are the implications for combatting loneliness? Currently, most interventions have limited effects and are largely universal and focused on all adults, without making distinctions between young adults and late middle-aged adults. The results of our study suggest that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to prevent or combat loneliness, but that approaches tailored to age and life phase might be advisable.