’He wasn’t in that chair’: what loneliness means to widowed older people

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Kate Mary Bennet
Christina Victor

Abstract

We have little robust empirical evidence that articulates what being lonely means to older people and even less knowledge about what loneliness means to older widows and widowers; this article addresses that deficit. We undertook a re-analysis of 125 interviews with older people (aged 55-98) that explored their experiences of widowhood. In this article, we focus on those interviews in which participants described themselves as experiencing loneliness by the spontaneous use of terms such as ’’lonely’’, ’’loneliness’’ or ’’lonesome’’. Almost half of the participants (42%) described themselves in that way without any prompting from the interviewer. In terms of understanding and describing the meaning of loneliness, 50% explained loneliness in terms of absence of either their spouse, a physical presence in the house or people. One-third (34%) discussed loneliness in relation to time and place: night, weekends and home, and 4% described the emotional impact of loneliness. Fifteen per cent just said they were lonely without elaboration, assuming a common understanding of what loneliness means. Our findings suggest that widowed people’s understanding and experience of loneliness resonates with the concept of ’’emotional’’ loneliness, resulting from the loss of significant social and emotional attachment. This has important implications for the types of interventions that may be appropriate for remediating loneliness in this group.

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