A Social Model of Loneliness: The Roles of Disability, Social Resources, and Cognitive Impairment

Gerontologist. 2017 Nov 10;57(6):1020-1030. doi: 10.1093/geront/gnw125.


Purpose of the study: We consider the points at which cognitive impairment may impact on the pathway to loneliness for older people, through impeding social interaction with family and friends, or by interfering with judgments concerning satisfaction with relationships.

Design and methods: We conceptualize a mediation model anticipating that social resources (LSNS-6) will mediate the pathway between disability (Townsend Disability Scale) and loneliness (De Jong Gierveld 6-item scale) and a moderated-mediation model in which we hypothesize that cognitive impairment (MMSE) will moderate the association between disability and social resources and between social resources and loneliness. To validate the hypothesized pathways, we draw on the CFAS Wales data set (N = 3,593) which is a nationally representative study of community-dwelling people aged 65 and older in Wales.

Results: Disability had a significant indirect effect on loneliness through the mediating variable social resources. Cognitive impairment was significantly associated with social resources, but did not moderate the relationship between disability and social resources. Cognitive impairment had a significant impact on loneliness, and moderated the effect of social resources on loneliness.

Implications: Social structures can (dis)empower people with cognitive impairment and lead to exclusion from social resources or impact on the social construction of aging, cognitive impairment, and dementia. The sense of self for an older person with cognitive impairment may be influenced by social norms and stereotypes, or through a temporal social comparison with an "earlier" sense of self. We conclude that loneliness interventions should be theoretically informed to identify key areas for modification.

Keywords: Analysis—moderated-mediation modeling; Dementia; Isolation; Social interaction; Social model of disability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cognitive Dysfunction* / diagnosis
  • Cognitive Dysfunction* / psychology
  • Disabled Persons / psychology
  • Family Relations / psychology
  • Female
  • Friends / psychology
  • Geriatric Assessment / methods*
  • Humans
  • Independent Living / psychology*
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Loneliness / psychology*
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Social Isolation / psychology
  • Social Support
  • Surveys and Questionnaires