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All the Lonely People

Our landmark survey uncovers an epidemic of loneliness.

lonely person in a sea of umbrellas

— Jillian Tamaki

Living alone and growing old are not, by themselves, reliable predictors of loneliness. Indeed, as noted previously, our study found that loneliness decreases with age: Middle-aged survey respondents reported higher rates of chronic loneliness, dispelling the notion that loneliness and isolation are inevitable consequences of old age. Consider these numbers: 43 percent of adults ages 45 through 49 are lonely, similar to the 41 percent of 50- through 59-year-olds who report being lonely. That compares with just 32 percent of those ages 60 through 69, and just 25 percent of those age 70 or older, who are lonely.

The reasons aren't clear, but the finding jibes with another study, based on a Gallup survey of more than 340,000 adults that was released in June, which found that overall levels of life satisfaction go up as one gets older. In the survey, self-rankings of overall life satisfaction start out fairly high at age 18, decline until about age 50, then start rising until, by 85, people are generally quite happy, regardless of whether they're living with anyone else.

Perhaps something deep and spiritual is going on — or maybe not. "Once I started living alone, I was delighted to discover that I could eat crackers in bed, come home as late as I liked, and make all the mistakes I wanted without answering to anyone," says Virginia Ironside, 66, an advice columnist for the London Independent and author of You're Old, I'm Old…Get Used to It!

As a full-time caregiver to her husband, Jack, who has dementia, Annette Arthur, 88, has a different perspective. She and Jack have lived in the same Baltimore house for 50 years. The loss of their shared memories makes her lonely, yet she feels more satisfied with her life than she did in middle age. "The closer you get to the end of your life, the more you cherish it," she says. "I take a lot of pleasure being in my home, and I savor the days I'm given."

Boomers, by contrast, are increasingly dissatisfied: The percentage who are lonely among people in their 50s nearly doubled in the past 10 years, while loneliness among those in their 60s increased by almost 50 percent. It's partly a workplace issue. Most Americans are working harder and longer for less money: The median household income stalled between 2000 and 2007, and it has declined sharply in the years since then. That has shown people like Charlotte Henry, 62, of San Juan, Puerto Rico, just how dull the "all work, no play" scenario can be. Divorced and living alone, the independent contractor holds down two jobs to make ends meet. "Once I get home from work, make dinner for myself, and clean up after it, I'm exhausted," she says. "There's no way I'm going to get dressed and go out again."

The workplace has also become inescapable, with e-mail, texting, and Twitter making it difficut to unplug and socialize. This "persistently frantic state of busyness" threatens our connections with one another, write psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and husband Richard Schwartz in The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21st Century. "People are so frazzled now when they're done working — if they ever are done working," says Olds, who practices in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaches at Harvard Medical School, as does her husband. "They just need a bit of solitude and downtime at the end of the day, and there's nothing wrong with that. But if you put socializing at the end of your to-do list, then you won't see people and you'll feel more isolated. You will also feel as if everyone else is leaving you out, even though you're the one who started it all by sending signals that you don't want company. So what started off as a reasonable wish fed on itself and became destructive."

Staying connected once you retire from a job, on the other hand, appears to thwart loneliness. Overall, retired people are less lonely than those not retired — probably because they have fewer obligations and thus more time for friends. Only 16 percent of retirees who continue to interact regularly with former coworkers are lonely, compared with 42 percent who do not interact at all with former colleagues. Additionally, almost half of older adults who had relocated to a new address in the past year were lonely. So if you can afford to retire to a dream home in the mountains or on the beach, congratulations — but put "Make new friends" high on your to-do list once you get there.

 

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