In the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, academics and public health officials were increasingly concerned about loneliness, particularly among older adults, for a variety of reasons. With the arrival of the pandemic, concerns about loneliness among older adults increased, due to mitigation efforts such as ‘physical distancing’ and minimizing participation in in-presence events, especially for older people.
Older individuals who lack close kin ties, such as partners or children, are generally at higher risk of loneliness. What about loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic? In their paper, Bruno Arpino (University of Florence), Christine Mair (University of Maryland), Nekehia Quashie (University of Rhode Island) and Radoslaw Antczak (SGH Warsaw School of Economics) analysed data on more than 35,000 adults aged 50 and older from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe to examine if unpartnered and childless older adults reported more loneliness and how that changed over the course of the pandemic.
Their analysis showed that prior to the pandemic when asked ‘have you felt lonely recently?’ those older adults who lacked one tie but had the other (i.e. unpartnered parents or partnered childless) were at greater risk for loneliness compared to those who had both ties.
During the pandemic’s first wave respondents were asked ‘have you felt lonely recently?’ and ‘have you felt lonelier than before the pandemic?’ While those without a partner and those without children were both more likely to experience loneliness, the unpartnered were more likely to undergo a more significant increase in their loneliness. For example, unpartnered older adults had a higher risk of feeling lonely – even if they did not feel so prior to the pandemic. They also had a higher risk of moving into loneliness – more so than childless older adults. Finally, older adults who were lonely prior to the pandemic were less likely to exit loneliness, regardless of their family status.
Interestingly, ‘kinless’ older adults (unpartnered and childless), while still at risk for loneliness, were not lonelier than the other two groups (unpartnered parents, partnered childless) prior to the pandemic. This was maintained over the first wave of the pandemic, possibly because kinless individuals have developed a range of resources and different coping strategies to manage the lack of close kinship ties.
Although the current study did not examine other well-being outcomes such as anxiety and depression that may have increased during the pandemic, the results highlight the increased risk for loneliness among certain groups – both prior to and during the pandemic. As the population of unpartnered and childless older adults grows globally, it will be important for public health officials to take into account how measures intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 or other pandemics, which limited social interactions, affected those groups already at higher risk for loneliness and consider approaches which limit social isolation.