Unlonely loneliness: looking at the nature of loneliness in older men

Loneliness is a familiar part of the human experience; however, it is a particularly pressing issue amongst the elderly in the UK. The Office for National Statisticsb(2013) reported that 50 per cent of British citizens above 75 years old live alone. In Scotland, this materialises even more starkly, as research suggests Edinburgh’s pensioners are the loneliest in the UK. It is these statistics that prompted me to explore the lived experiences of the Scottish elderly.

Looking into this topic as part of my degree, this article contains segments of an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) that I conducted, which aimed to address men’s experiences of independent living in later life, thereby giving the student populace insight into the mental health of the older generation. Loneliness in men is often overlooked, as considerably more research reports on women’s loneliness. Research suggests that as stigma around loneliness has developed, it has affected men more than it has women. This is due to the fact that societal attitudes and hegemonic views of masculinity arguably discourage men from reporting feelings of loneliness. A fear of being vulnerable and the need to appear independent are culturally specific expectations that form part of a hegemonic masculinity. This further highlights a need to understand men’s perspectives, for which an IPA study is appropriate as it examines the experiential claims and concerns of the participant and gives a detailed analysis of what it is like for that person to exist in their social and cultural context.

Six men (aged 71 to 87) living alone in Edinburgh were invited to participate in the study. Four of the men were widowed, one was single, and one divorced. The time they had spent living alone ranged from eight to 48 years. The men participated in a semi-structured interview, guided flexibly with open-ended questions focusing on their experiences in three key areas: social life, living alone and life ‘as a man’. It is important to note that each participant articulated distinctively different ‘lifeworlds’. One of these men was Lance.

Lance spoke at length about how his health issues have influenced his ability to cope with living alone:

“Um, so there’s now, because of my health […] the number of people I see and the things I do are enough for the amount of energy I’ve got. […] We used to be able to do walks, but I can’t do walks now really.”

Lance’s deteriorating health and energy levels prevent him from fully enjoying his day-to-day activities. The ambiguity of his reference to ‘now really’ indicates that while Lance is aware (and accepts) that deterioration is occurring, this change has left him with an ambiguous experience he expresses paradoxically. He says he can walk, but can no longer “do walks.” This is a further indication of how his physical illnesses operate simultaneously with his depression.

Lance refers to a threshold of “not coping.” He is aware that he can currently cope, but has an intense awareness of the future challenges posed by his deteriorating health:

“I can still do it at the moment. But I know, especially with a lung condition, that’s gonna become, in the next year or two, increasingly difficult.”

His recognition of being able to do something as simple as walking, but knowing eventually it will be difficult, leaves him anticipating a threshold of ‘not coping’, which he says is “difficult to grapple with.” The word “grapple” is repeated numerous times in the interview. Thisthresholdmaterialisessimilarly in Lance’s feelings of being unable to cope with the loss of his wife, such as getting “weepy” while watching a film which reminded him of their first date. Eventually, this led to his decision to start antidepressants.

Lance feels uncomfortable requesting assistance. He appears to experience a tension between recognising that he requires help and his fear of becoming a burden:

“I had to say to the friend I was with, ‘could you cut the steak up for me?’ […] which is yea necessary. I’ve asked two or three folk to do it. I’m getting more used to it, but it still feels… awkward. You feel you’re putting the person on the spot. You feel you’re not coping, which doesn’t feel good at all.”

When Lance feels like he is putting a friend on the spot, he experiences a sensation of “not coping,” contributing further to his fear of becoming a burden. The word “awkward” reflects this “odd” experience for him. A man who was a civil engineer, lecturer and counsellor, Lance describes it as “a bit tricky” finding the courage and voice to ask for help.

These fears of becoming a burden test Lance’s self-esteem, as he is forced to confront the idea of how others perceive him:

“I am concerned that that’s what I’m gonna become as the health deteriorates.”

“How does that make you feel?” “Not good about myself.”

Lance does care what people think, particularly people close to him, like his friends, and experiences sadness at the thought that his friends or family may perceive him as a burden. His loss of complete independence is a further contributing factor to this loss of self-esteem.

Lance went on to describe having “a feeling of being on my own” but explicitly distinguishes his experience of aloneness from loneliness, which he says is different.

“I felt kind of part of the group, but yea somehow not quite part of the group. Everybody in the group, including the other facilitator, all had a significant other in their life, who was either with them at the group or back at home.

“But because I didn’t, I was on my own, and I kind of heightened my on-my-ownness, as it were[…] I think in my life I’ve always tended to be, what would I say, independent. Always slightly different from the rest of the group somehow. Yeah, it got me thinking. I think I’ve always tended to be part of things and at the same time observing things.” His experience of aloneness became distinct when he reflected on being in a support group which he co-facilitated and yet felt isolated. Lance describes feeling like an outsider, and despite being in the ‘in-group,’ experiences himself as an observer. This indicates that, even when not alone, he carries a sense of aloneness. In the support group, he

recognised that being widowed and unpartnered by choice made him feel different. Being widowed enhances his sense of ‘on-my-ownness’, leading him to“feel alone, but[not] lonely:” an unlonely aloneness.

Overall, this analysis reflects one man’s experience of living alone in later life. However, there are many individuals like Lance who may not be given the opportunity or may not feel comfortable discussing these experiences. It is crucial that this demographic receives the support needed and that topics like aloneness and loneliness become less stigmatised amongst men.

Several support programs are available for older people who live alone including Cruse Bereavement Care Scotland (Tel: 0845 600 2227, Email: info@crusescotland.org.uk).

 

Image: Carlos Finley

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