An elderly woman sadly looking out the window. Melancholy and depressed.
(Credit: Dmitry Berkut / Getty Images)

The results of a new poll on loneliness will come as no shock to senior living providers — adults aged 50 to 80 who live alone report higher rates of social isolation than those who live with others.

The latest University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging, released Monday, surveyed adults aged 50 to 80 about loneliness and social interactions and compared those results with responses to similar questions between 2018 and 2022.

Although the proportion of respondents who reported feeling isolated from others in the past year is now lower than in the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a substantial number still report feeling socially isolated. 

According to the poll results, feelings of isolation were more common among people who lived alone (38%) compared with those who lived with others (32%). Feelings of a lack of companionship also were more common among those who lived alone (47%) versus those who lived with others (33%). 

The results seem to support findings of previous studies showing that senior living residents reported improved quality of life and fewer feelings of loneliness and social isolation than older adults living on their own in the general community.

A summer 2022 report from the American Seniors Housing Association and ATI Advisory found that senior living communities improved quality of life during the pandemic through cohesive social environments and encouragement of residents to participate in social activities. Residents, the study found, were more likely to have greater social, physical and intellectual wellness than their counterparts living in the greater community.

The desire for socialization among older adults also helped the senior living industry work toward overcoming decreased occupancy last year. Occupancy in continuing care retirement communities — as well as in assisted living and independent living communities — began inching up last summer as older adults sold their homes to make a move to senior living for opportunities for friendship and socialization, according to data from the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care.

In 2021, a survey from Activated Insights reported that just 20% of senior living residents reported feeling “severely lonely.” The survey revealed a potential decline in loneliness among older adults in assisted living and other congregate living settings from before the pandemic. 

Robert Kramer, founder of Nexus Insights and co-founder, former CEO and current senior adviser to NIC, at the time told McKnight’s Senior Living that the data showed that a large percentage of senior living residents were not lonely, and that the common perceptions were wrong, ageist and “missed the hopefulness of seniors in finding a sense of community, even in the midst of the pandemic.”

Loneliness affects health in older adults

According to the latest U-M study, chronic loneliness can adversely affect mental, cognitive and physical health, general well-being and longevity. National Poll on Healthy Aging polls from 2018 to 2023 consistently found that feelings of isolation, lack of companionship and infrequent social contact were strongly associated with poorer physical and mental health among older adults.

The authors stated that addressing loneliness requires a multifaceted approach, calling on physicians to identify and screen those at increased risk of feeling isolated, lacking companionship, or being disconnected from others. 

“Loneliness affects the health and well-being of older adults,” the authors concluded. “It is critical for policymakers, clinicians and family members to address what the US Surgeon General has called an “epidemic of loneliness.”

The report is based on an online survey conducted in January by NORC at the University of Chicago.