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Loneliness in later life: will the experience of baby boomers be different?
Relationship is vital for human flourishing. This paper considers issues of loneliness in an exploration of the future of ageing baby boomers and their spiritual resources. Loneliness is one of the major challenges for the current cohort of older people living alone in the community. Will the experience be different for ageing baby boomers? It is suggested that the losses experienced in ageing will be similar for the baby boomers too. The question becomes, what resources will they be able to harness to remain resilient and flourish in the face of increasing losses, disabilities and increasing dependence. Social isolation is currently being addressed by various community programs, but little seems to change in the quality and meaning of life for frail older people living in their own homes. At the same time, spiritual strategies and resources have been shown to be effective protectors for well being in the current cohort of older people, but these strategies may not be available for baby boomers, due to lower rates of religious participation.
Loneliness is apparently one of the major issues for older, frail people living alone. It seems likely this is a particular issue of growing older in western societies. Loneliness is a major factor among the current cohort older people living alone, once they lose the ability to drive and have lost significant relationships through death. The baby boomers have reshaped so much in social terms as they have journeyed through the life cycle. However, issues of ageing such as isolation and loneliness may not be as responsive to baby boomer initiatives as previous life stages. Longino (2005) writes that the enormous size of the baby boom cohort makes for sizable challenges when they reach retirement, regardless of any other forces. He paints two scenarios of baby boomer ageing, the first pessimistic, the second an optimistic view. From the pessimistic view, the sheer numbers will make it too difficult to make changes when the baby boomers become old and frail. Finances, health care and social care will all be adversely affected. While life style may be goals to maintain, it is unlikely that the weak and poor will be catered for. Longino sees these trends as ageist, treating the whole baby boom group as homogenous, and objectifying them as burdens. On the other hand, Longino sees a positive view for the baby boomers; higher education and better financial positions may provide this cohort with resources as discerning consumers, even in older age. If this is the case, then the burden of dependency in ageing may diminish. Most of these positive factors relate to life style, and not to spiritual matters, and it is the spiritual that mediates and connects with meaning (MacKinlay 2001, 2006). Thus, it may be argued, that loneliness may still be a problem for at least some older baby boomers.
What are the factors that make for loneliness?
There are a number of factors that may lead to loneliness, for instance, loss of partners, adult children moving away, or the older person choosing to move to, for example, a coastal retirement setting. These factors become more important when health is compromised and the person can no longer drive a car or use public transport, where it is available. They then become reliant on others for transport, creating inequality of relationships and dependency between older adults and their adult children, who are most likely to be the carers. The present cohort of older people is often reluctant to ask for assistance, perhaps having a sense of being unable to repay the assistance, and wanting to retain their independence. Financial factors may also present barriers to social participation.
These factors are unlikely to change for baby boomers. Once the person’s partner has died, the surviving person’s health has deteriorated; add loss of driving license, and few remaining mobile friends, and move to a home by the sea is more likely to become a virtual prison, than a beautiful place of retirement and fulfilment.
Western societies in the early twenty-first century have still not come to terms with adequate ways of supporting older people in community, outside of purpose designed retirement villages. It is unlikely that many ageing baby boomers will want to reside in retirement villages and the type of aged care facilities that are currently commonly found. One major issue will continue to raise barriers to new models of community living: the retention of and threat to autonomy. While housing designs and retirement complexes present difficult choices, perhaps developing spiritual strengths and resilience will provide some protection against loneliness encountered when living alone.
The ninth stage of the life cycle
Baby boomers have long been associated with autonomy and independence. It may be well to consider that if one lives long enough, frailty and at least some degree of dependence are sure to intervene. Erikson’s work on the life cycle, and the life cycle completed is worth considering along with the boomer characteristic behaviours. Joan Erikson, in the extended version of The Life Cycle Completed (1997) written in her nineties, re-examined the life cycle. Working from her previous edition and with Erik’s notes she pondered the changes that she was now experiencing. She still used the terms integrity versus despair, and wisdom as an outcome of that final stage, however, she ground the word ‘wisdom’ from the root word veda, ‘to see’ from the Sanskrit writings, meaning quest for wisdom, insight, understanding and illumination. For integrity, Erikson writes:
Integrity has the function of promoting contact with the world, with things, and, above all, with people. It is a tactile and tangible way to live, not an intangible, virtuous goal to seek after and achieve. When we say the clause “This person’s work has integrity,” we offer the highest praise because the work demonstrates its capacity to hold together. It is sturdy and reliable, not ethereal. It is a confirmation of sight and sound and skill involving all our senses. (Erikson 1997, p.9)
Joan Erikson brings the whole of the life cycle together in the ninth stage, which is a consideration of all that has gone before, and now, probably in the nineties, the person completing this cycle moves to a new stage of living into the frailties of life. Thus says Joan, the way of expressing the syntonic and dystonic stages of the life cycle are reversed, to place the dystonic first, the first stage then becomes basic mistrust versus trust, the outcome of which is hope. This is done for all eight stages.
In the final stage of despair and disgust versus integrity, the outcome is wisdom. Part of this final process is the process of transcendence, where withdrawal may become more usual. This final stage of life is challenging for us all, and I suspect that we may not even begin to understand it until we have reached that place ourselves.
As Erikson unpacks the ninth stage of the life cycle, I suspect that important preparation may be needed to effectively enter this place. Perhaps an important component of this preparation is in learning to become introspective. How much baby boomers have engaged in this process is uncertain, as recent decades have emphasised continued engagement with life, mostly in a ‘doing mode.’ Positive and ‘successful’ ageing have been strongly promoted by many (Rowe & Kahn 1999). Loneliness may be felt more acutely by those who have followed this path.
Current religious and spiritual strategies used by older adults
that raise resilience and lower loneliness among those living alone
Koenig, et al (2004) studied the effect of religion and spirituality on social support, psychological functioning, and physical health in medically ill hospitalized older adults. While this does not provide a direct measure of the conditions of social isolation of those living in the community, it can be assumed to at least represent the conditions of those who need admission to hospital for medical treatment, and who are thus by definition, more vulnerable. Koenig et al found higher levels of religiousness and spirituality consistently predicted greater social support, fewer depressive symptoms, better cognitive function, and greater cooperativeness among people aged 50 years or more. At the same time, they found that merely watching TV and listening to radio religious programs was associated with lower physical functioning and greater co-morbidity. Thus those who had higher levels of religiousness and spirituality showed greater levels of resilience against social isolation and its consequences.
Koenig et al also reported from two recent Gallup polls, (2000 and 2001) that as age increased, so did the importance of religion and spirituality. However, it is not known from that data whether this change would be within the same cohort over time, or whether earlier cohorts of older people rated religion as more important. Those aged 50 years were certainly within the baby boomer cohort reported in this article. So the question is, will their spirituality increase as they grow older?
Hughes and Black (1999) found that two thirds of Australians felt that a spiritual life (but not religious life) was important. Respondents searched for meaning and a sense of peace and well-being in their lives through relationships, work, nature and music. In Australia, acknowledged as a largely secular society, 80% claim belief in a god or deity, only about 20% attend church at least monthly; compared with 45% attendance in the 1950s (Bellamy 2002).
Declining church association and attendance
However, there are other issues as well. The resources of a well developed spirituality among older people may in itself be protective against loneliness. However, a decline in the church going numbers in urban communities in most western societies means that the church as a support system will be less available and less able to support and provide care that could mitigate against loneliness. Thus an important question for the ageing baby boomers is, will church become a resource for them? Or are the majority of baby boomers too far removed from such agencies, having not availed themselves of these resources earlier in life; that they will not be able to, nor want to link with church and other religious resources and services. Are there other community resources that might be used in this way, or do the churches offer resources that are different in some important ways? The churches offer social support, but as well they offer a different perspective, that of faith, and it is the faith perspective that is important in supporting spiritual growth and practices that strengthen spiritual resilience.
Knapp & Pruett (2006) note that each birth cohort sees the world through its own generational lens. The baby boomer cohort has experienced a very different social and educational background from the generations before them. They were brought up in post WW11 and experienced greater individual freedoms and resources. It is perhaps inevitable then that the Baby Boomer cohort, with its large numbers, has driven social changes that have distinguished it from the cohort that immediately preceded it.
Differences between baby boomers and adult seniors in faith behaviours
In a study by Knapp and Pruett (2006) of faith practices of senior adults and baby boomers, significant differences were found with senior adults being more likely than boomers to pray on a daily basis and seniors considered themselves to be more active in their faith than boomers. While the mean score for senior adults was higher than boomers on the degree to which their faith provided purpose in life and the impact of their faith in daily activities, the differences were too small to be considered statistically significant. Senior adults also read the bible, attended church and watched religious TV and radio programs more frequently than did boomers. The question remains however that there may be a number of reasons why boomers had not developed their spiritual strategies to the same extent as senior adults, including the fact that these study participants were still often engaged in mid life and family activities and did not yet have the free time to engage in these faith behaviours to the same extent as the older group. It is also noted that this cross sectional study would be strengthened by following up with the boomers group to examine changes in faith behaviours as they grow older.
What do the churches offer to
combat loneliness for older people?
The churches generally offer regular worship services, as well, many offer support and visiting and pastoral care, and various groups that people can access. But, there is more. In a well functioning religious community, the members learn and develop spiritual strategies, such as prayer, and perhaps meditation, as well as habits of reading of religious and spiritual resources. These strategies, learnt over many years, provide a rich resource for the members, which can protect against loneliness. In fact research within the last two decades has provided support for the benefits of being part of the church or faith community (Koenig, McCullough, & Larson 2001; Moberg 2001). Is there a way that some of these resources may be developed and used for people who do not have a faith perspective? Some spiritual resources are only available on the basis of the person’s faith practice; others may be amenable to using without a faith basis.
Strategies for baby boomers to minimise risk of loneliness
First, it is acknowledged that baby boomers may not want to use the same strategies for minimising loneliness as previous generations. However, some at least may be more willing to explore possibilities and ask questions that may lead to engagement with effective ways of preventing loneliness. On their past experiences, they should not be slow to seek ways of finding life satisfaction. Baby boomers who have an active faith will no doubt develop their spiritual resources and will seek ways of strengthening these. Others who do not have an active faith may seek many other ways of overcoming loneliness, including social and physical strategies. However, this may become more difficult as they reach their eighties and nineties and become more frail and unable to use their accustomed resources.
It seems important for baby boomers to develop a range of spiritual and meaning making strategies to support resilience as they grow older. Once they have reached frailty, it will be more difficult to develop such strategies. For both those who practice a faith and for those who do not, meditation has been shown to be an effective means of both spiritual sustenance and relaxation. Vohra-Gupta, Russell & Lo. (2007) and others have studied meditation from an Eastern origin within Western settings. Christian meditation has long traditions as well. Meditation may provide effective means of developing transcendence among baby boomers as they age.
Based on their choices over the life span until now, their education and life experiences, I suspect that baby boomers will adopt a wider variety of ways of meeting their spiritual and religious needs to combat isolation and loneliness than previous cohorts of older adults have done. Some may return to a practice of religion, and this may vary between different countries. The United States has retained higher levels of church attenders in recent generations than the UK or Australia. Some boomers may not actually search for spirituality and life meaning, or may prefer to adopt Eastern spiritual and religious patterns.
Christianity does offer strategies that are timeless in their ability to offer ways of growing spiritually in later life, provided that these are attractive to baby boomers. But it must be stressed that Christianity is not about offering recipes for well being, rather it offers a faith perspective by which to live life. It offers the potential to continue growing and developing spiritually until one’s life end.
It will be important to examine the ageing process of the boomers with them, in a consultative process that will enable boomers to seek new ways of being in their later years. Effective strategies may provide protection against loneliness. But then the boomers may surprise everyone and find new ways of growing older.
Bellamy J, Black A., Castle K, Hughes P, Kaldor P. (2002). Why people don’t go to church. Adelaide: Openbook.
Erikson, E. (1997) The Life cycle completed: Extended version. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Hughes P, Black A. (1999) Managing the diversity of implicit religions in Australian society. In Bouma, G. ed. Managing Religious Diversity: From threat to promise. NSW: Australian Association for the Study of Religions.
Knapp, J.L. & Pruett, C.D. (2006) The Graying of the Baby Boomers: Implications for Senior Adult Ministry. Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging. 19, 1, 3-15.
Koenig, H.G. George, L.K. & Titus, P. (2004 ) Religion, Spirituality, and Health in Medically Ill Hospitalized Older Patients, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, April 2004. 52, 4, 554-462.
Koenig, H.G. McCullough, M.E. and Larson D.B. (2001) Handbook of Religion and Health. New York: Oxford University Press.
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Rowe, J. & Kahn, R. (1999) Successful aging. New York: Random House.
Vohra-Gupta, S, Russell, A, & Lo, E. (2007) Meditation: The Adoption of Eastern Thought to Western Social Practices. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work. 26, 2, 49-61.