Senior housing can be lonely, but also offers support

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Older adults who live in public senior housing communities experience a large degree of loneliness, according to a new study. Those same communities may also, however, be ideal locations for reducing that loneliness, the same study finds.

“There are many studies on loneliness among community-dwelling older adults; however, there is limited research examining the extent and correlates of loneliness among older adults who reside in senior housing communities,” writes Harry Chatters Taylor, doctoral student at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis and lead author of a new paper in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work.

The study examines the extent of loneliness in three public senior housing communities in the St. Louis area. Two of the three complexes were in urban neighborhoods, and the last was located in a suburban neighborhood. All were publicly funded under Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly Program.

Researchers collected data for the project with survey questionnaires with a total sample size of 148 respondents. They measured loneliness using the Hughes 3-item loneliness scale. The questionnaire also included measures on socio-demographics, health/mental health, social engagement, and social support.

Results show that approximately 30.8 percent of the participants were not lonely; 42.7 percent were moderately lonely; and 26.6 percent were severely lonely. In analyzing the data, researchers found loneliness was primarily associated with depressive symptoms.

“We speculate that loneliness may be higher in senior housing communities for a few important reasons,” Taylor says. “The first is older adults residing in senior housing communities often have greater risk for loneliness. In order to qualify to live in these senior housing communities, older adults must have a low income, and having a lower income is a risk factor for loneliness.

“Additionally, most of the residents we interviewed identified their marital status as single, which is another risk factor for greater loneliness. Many older adults living in senior housing communities also have greater health and mental health vulnerabilities, which increases the likelihood that an older adult will experience loneliness.”

Despite all those factors, these kinds of communities may be better suited to combat loneliness than traditional residential homes, the research shows.

“We believe that senior housing communities could become ideal locations for reducing loneliness among older adults,” Taylor says.

“Senior housing communities are embedded in communities with peers who may have similar age and life experiences. There are occasional activities and support from senior housing management to encourage the building of friendships, bonds, and social support among senior housing residents.

“Most senior housing communities also have a common space or multipurpose room available for use, which can also help facilitate building bonds between residents. Senior housing communities are frequently located close to public transportation, which provides access to transportation for residents without automobiles.”

Social isolation ups health risks for older adults

Still, loneliness is frequently a stigmatized condition, Taylor says.

“We often do not like to talk about our feelings of loneliness. For practitioners, it is important to be patient when working with older adults, and it could take a while for an older adult, regardless if they reside in a senior housing facility, to admit they are feeling lonely.

“Whether you are a child, relative, or family member to an older adult, or provide services to older adults, be patient when discussing issues of loneliness and mental health with older adults.”

Why a little loneliness can be a powerful thing

Yi Wang, a doctoral student at the Brown School, and Nancy Morrow-Howell, distinguished professor of social policy and the director of the Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging, are coauthors of the paper.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis