Background: Emotional loneliness and social isolation are major problems in old age. These concepts are interrelated and often used interchangeably, but few studies have investigated them simultaneously thus trying to clarify their relationship.
Objectives: To describe the prevalence of loneliness among aged Finns and to study the relationship of loneliness with the frequency of social contacts, with older people's expectations and satisfaction of their human relationships. Especially, we wanted to clarify whether emotional loneliness is a separate concept from social isolation.
Methods: The data were collected with a postal questionnaire. Background information, feelings of loneliness, number of friends, frequency of contacts with children, grandchildren and friends, the expectations of frequency of contacts as well as satisfaction of the contacts were inquired. The questionnaire was sent to a random sample of 6,786 aged people (>74 years) in various urban and rural areas in Finland. We report here the results of community-dwelling respondents (n = 4,113).
Main results: More than one third of the respondents (39.4%) suffered from loneliness. Feeling of loneliness was not associated with the frequency of contacts with children and friends but rather with expectations and satisfaction of these contacts. The most powerful predictors of loneliness were living alone, depression, experienced poor understanding by the nearest, and unfulfilled expectations of contacts with friends.
Conclusion: Our findings support the view that emotional loneliness is a separate concept from social isolation. This has implications for practice. Interventions aiming at relieving loneliness should be focused on enabling an individual to reflect her own expectations and inner feelings of loneliness.