Elderly people living alone… and not as socially isolated as you might think

A third of people over 65 lived alone in the country, according to the 2016 census. And among people aged 85 and over, this figure reached 56% among women and 29% among men.

Does this mean that from a certain age – when we sometimes have to deal with the loss of physical or psychological autonomy – living alone means being isolated from the world and feeling unhappy, as we understand it – often in public discourse?

Not quite, according to a study in collaboration with Les Petits Frères among 32 women and 11 men aged 65 to 93 living alone in the Montreal area. Led by Michel Charpentier of the UQAM School of Social Work, the project brought together a research team that included Associate Professor Maryse Soulier of the University of Montreal’s School of Social Work.

The aim of the study was, firstly, to study how lonely older people perceive their daily lives and their social relationships from the point of view of the theory of the sociology of experience. This theory refers to how a person understands and makes sense of his reality, and the means he uses to adapt to it.

Second, the research team presented their findings to approximately 120 people working with older people, including psychosocial workers, volunteers, community leaders, and decision makers.

Among the older adults in the study, some of whom experienced a significant loss of functional autonomy on a daily basis, more than half had lived alone for more than 25 years, and the vast majority had a modest income of less than $25,000 a year. . They lived either in their own house or apartment, or in public housing, or in housing cooperatives, or in hostels for the elderly.

Diverse social relationships… and intimate

Maryse Sulier

When asked between 2016 and 2019 about their life experiences and the way they cope in everyday life, most of the subjects answered that their children are central to their social lives.

Most of those who did not have children or who no longer kept in touch with them kept in touch with young people, such as their grandchildren, their nephews and nieces, or even the children of their friends.

Most also had friends—sometimes old, sometimes recent—with whom they interacted regularly.

“During our interviews, almost all of the members also told us about their romantic relationships, whether it was relationships they already had or their hopes that they would have one,” Maryse Soulier says. Some people expressed a need for an intimate and sexual life, while others, especially women, reported a reluctance to have a boyfriend, usually out of fear of losing the benefits of their single lifestyle.”

Resourceful seniors and technology users

If they pointed to the diversification of social relations, then the study participants also demonstrated that they were able to maintain them and create new ones to compensate for their isolation.

So when it became more difficult to arrange face-to-face meetings, the telephone became one of the means used to maintain contact. Moreover, older people have learned to use the Internet and social networks with a certain ease.

“Sending email as well as using video conferencing on Facebook and Skype were among the various means used by people of all ages,” adds Maryse Soulier. The 81-year-old even had a blog that kept her in touch with a large audience.

In addition, several interviewees said that they take part in sports, recreational and creative activities in their immediate environment. Another 87-year-old woman said she enjoys the weekly dance classes, which allow her to keep fit and socialize.

Better take care of really isolated people

Although the majority of participants claimed to lead a satisfactory social life—sometimes even despite the loss of physical or psychological autonomy—20% of the people in the group were in a state of significant social isolation.

Most of them were men over 80 who had lived alone for most of their lives. “They had great difficulties, even the inability to appoint a person who could quickly come to their aid in case of need,” continues Maryse Sulier.

For some, the course of life destroyed their social network – for example, all their friends and acquaintances died – while others considered themselves marginalized, a solitary life suited them more.

“In short, our research tells us that we should not put all older people in one basket, many of whom are well surrounded by their family, as well as their friends, whom we too often underestimate,” insists Maryse Soulier.

She adds that the study could help better target and organize activities for older adults who are truly socially isolated.

“To do this, different stakeholders must demonstrate originality to successfully reach isolated older people and make services more flexible so that they are available at critical moments, such as forced relocation or the death of the only people who were part of their lives. networks,” concludes the professor.