Old and Alone: Even Professionals Do Not Understand This

Many old people value solitude. What the people who care for them get wrong.

Posted Nov 25, 2020

How do old people feel about the time they spend alone? Instead of just assuming that solitude, for old people, means loneliness and despair, a trio of gerontologists at the University of Haifa in Israel asked old people if being by themselves could be a positive experience and whether it actually has been for them. Then they took an important next step – they asked occupational therapists who work with old people and graduate students training to be scholars of old people (gerontologists) whether they thought that solitude could be a positive experience for old people.

Gerontology scholars Sharon Ost-Mor, Yuval Palgi, and Dikla Segel-Karpas recruited 41 people between the ages of 65 and 103 to participate. They were the old people. Nineteen of them were 85 or older and 19 were men. Six were living in retirement homes or nursing homes. Thirty-one were Jewish. They were a diverse group with regard to marital status, work status, economic status, and health.

The researchers also recruited 57 professionals. Sixteen were gerontology occupational therapists and 41 were gerontology graduate students.

The old people were asked questions such as:

  • “Can being by oneself be a positive or agreeable experience?”
  • “Can you recall a situation in which you felt that being by yourself was a positive experience?”

The occupational therapists and gerontology graduate students were asked to answer the same questions as they applied to old people. The findings were reported in "Exploring gaps in positive solitude perceptions: older adults vs. gerontology professionals," in International Psychogeriatrics.thank 

Old People’s Experiences of Positive Solitude

The results for the old people were straightforward. They believed that being alone can be an enriching experience. When asked for examples of when they enjoy being by themselves, they mentioned fishing, lighting a bonfire, making coffee, appreciating art, reminiscing, and training for triathlons.

None of the old people qualified their answers. For example, they didn’t say that they only enjoyed being alone if they were in a certain mood or if they were not in pain. All they needed was the time, the space, and no one else trying to interfere. 

Professionals’ Perceptions of Old People’s Experiences of Solitude

Many of the professionals – particularly the graduate students – did not fully appreciate how enjoyable solitude can be to old people. When asked whether solitude could be a positive experience in old age, 7 of the 41 grad students (17 percent) said no. One added, “Unlike young people who can handle various situations and manage alone, old people cannot.”

Fortunately, all of the occupational therapists did realize that old people can enjoy the time they have to themselves. But of all the professionals (the 16 occupational therapists and the 41 grad students), only three thought that old people could enjoy time alone when they were outside, such as walking in a park or sitting in a garden. That would be news to the old people who said they enjoyed solo bonfires, fishing, and training for triathlons.

The professionals also differed from the old people in all the qualifications they generated. They thought that old people enjoyed their solitude only under particular preconditions. For example:

  • “If he has a rich inner world.”
  • “When his physical needs are met: if he is clean.”
  • “If an old person is at home alone, he might not enjoy being alone, but if he is in an institution, he might enjoy PS as an escape from all the external stimuli.”
  • “Only if they are active, free of illness or health conditions which might limit them and if they don’t need any social support.”

Is This Particularly Hard to Understand Over Holidays and During a Pandemic?

I wanted to write this blog post about positive solitude days ago, but worried that it might seem insensitive. It’s the holiday season and in many places around the world, we’re still in the midst of a raging pandemic. There are old people (and some not so old people) who may be feeling alone in a way that is not just painful, but excruciating. Their feelings matter and should never be disregarded.

And yet, the feelings of this 89-year-old should not be discounted, either:

“I enter my quiet space feeling quietness and satisfaction…or after the grandchildren are here, they are so noisy…I just wait till they leave and lie down in bed, quietly…You see, I love them very much, but I need my quietness.”

This person valued solitude and also valued family. In fact, in their review of other studies of old people’s experiences of positive solitude (PS), Ost-Mor and her colleagues noted that “older adults who prefer PS balance well the need for sociability and the need for PS.” Enjoying time alone “is not incompatible with good social relationships.”

You can miss your friends and family and still crave time to yourself. The first part of that equation is ensconced in our conventional wisdom. What did you think when you first saw the title of this post, “Old and alone”? You would have to resist a lifetime of cultural conditioning not to summon haunting images of desolation. By writing about this study, I want to make it a little easier for you to instead picture the real old people who are contentedly making their morning coffee or off fishing.

It’s personal, too. At 67, I would qualify as old in this study. I have always lived alone and cherished my time alone. I hope I will always be healthy enough to continue living alone. But if I end up living with others, it is terrifying to think that there may be people hovering around me, including trained professionals, who refuse to believe that I actually want and enjoy some time to myself. A lot of time to myself.

Some Things to Keep in Mind

This was a small study. The old people, the occupational therapists, and the graduate students were not selected to be representative of their groups. We can’t generalize the findings to all of the people in those groups. The findings are more suggestive than definitive. Yet what they suggest is important. The people who care for old people, and care about them, may have the best of intentions and yet fail to appreciate what old people really do want and savor. Caregivers, including even professional ones, may be needlessly nudging old people into doing things that undermine their enjoyment of their lives.

It is also worth keeping in mind that the participants were only asked about positive aspects of being alone. Maybe if they were asked explicitly about negative aspects, such as loneliness, the findings would have been different. Even so, it is noteworthy that when old people were asked about positive experiences of solitude, they described positive experiences of solitude. The professionals, on the other hand, sometimes denied that solitude could ever be a positive experience for old people, or they generated lists of specific conditions under which, maybe, old people could enjoy being alone. That needs to change.

More writings about solitude, including many from this Living Single blog, are here. More blog posts about what it is like to be old, particularly for single people, are here.