U.S. adults aged 60 and up are flying solo for more than half their waking hours, not counting time spent on “personal activities,” according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis — totaling just over seven hours alone every day, on average.
Some 14% of the 60-and-up crowd say they spend all of their measured time alone. In contrast, just 8% of those under 60 say the same. Pew crunched numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey to draw its conclusions.
What’s more, people 60 and over who live alone are alone as long as 10.5 hours a day when they’re awake. Those who live with a spouse or partner spend more than five waking hours alone, while those living in some “other arrangement” are alone for an average of seven hours and 46 minutes.
The older people get, the more time they spend alone, according to Pew’s analysis of 2014 to 2017 BLS data. Americans under 40 spend just 3.5 of their waking hours alone, while those in their 40s and 50s are alone for four hours and 45 minutes, on average. That figure climbs to about 6.5 hours among those in their 60s, 7.5 hours for those in their 70s, and seven hours and 47 minutes among those aged 80 and up. (Adults are less likely to live with a spouse or partner as they get older, the report notes.)
Older women are more likely than men to spend time alone, particularly as they age into their 70s and beyond. Women have a longer life expectancy than men, after all, and are thus more likely to live alone, Pew says.
But “while time spent alone is not necessarily associated with adverse effects,” the Pew analysis notes, “it can be used as a measure of social isolation, which in turn is linked with negative health outcomes among older adults.”
The costs of loneliness
One large 2018 study, for example, linked social isolation (a measure of the number of people living in one’s household, the frequency of visits with friends or family, and leisure and social activities) and the related condition of loneliness (based on the questions “Do you often feel lonely?” and “How often are you able to confide in someone close to you?”) with increased heart attack and stroke risk. A separate American Cancer Society-led study that year found an association between social isolation and a higher risk of death.
Social isolation among adults 65 and up adds about $6.7 billion a year to Medicare costs.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, meanwhile, likened the reduction in lifespan related to loneliness to “that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day” in a 2017 Washington Post interview.
Social isolation among adults 65 and up adds about $6.7 billion a year to Medicare costs, according to a 2017 report by the AARP Public Policy Institute, which defined the condition as “a lack of meaningful contacts with others.”
And Dilip Jeste, a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, previously told MarketWatch that loneliness can take an economic toll with respect to health care, productivity and absenteeism. (Jeste defines loneliness as a “subjective distress” due to a gap between someone’s desired and actual social connections.)
Research co-authored by Jeste last year found that people who are wiser — a quality measured by self-reflection; control over emotions; empathy, compassion and altruism; acceptance of uncertainty; decisiveness; and social advising — are less lonely.
Steps to feeling less lonely
How else can older adults shield themselves from loneliness? In an interview with MarketWatch, Jeste shared takeaways from yet-to-be-published qualitative interview research he’d co-authored involving 30 subjects aged 65 to 95 in a San Diego senior housing community.
First, Jeste said, decide whether you want to be by yourself or do something to make yourself feel less lonely. If you’re feeling lonely because of social isolation, you can seek out social relationships by physically going out and meeting or visiting people, or by reaching out to others via phone call, email or social media, he said.
On the other hand, he said, you could find ways to be content by yourself. “You don’t need to have more social relationships in order to stop feeling lonely — it is subjective,” Jeste said. “You can reduce your loneliness just by making good use of that time with yourself.” That might mean reading, writing, reflecting or watching your favorite movies.
Some interviewees said spirituality and religion also played a role in helping ward off loneliness, Jeste said, whether they subscribed to a specific faith or just a sense of universality. “[They] said that when they’re by themselves, they don’t feel lonely because they strongly believe there’s something larger than themselves,” he said. “When they think about that, whether it’s God or something else, they don’t feel lonely.”
Because loneliness is subjective, a person’s outlook matters a lot, Jeste added. Instead of feeling bad about the losses you can’t control — like good health, friends or family — you can find strength in the things you still have, he said.
“Accept the things you cannot change,” Jeste said, “but do change the things that you can.”