Having a partner was more beneficial at avoiding loneliness during the first wave of COVID-19 than having children.
Research published in the European Journal of Ageing found that whilst those without children and those without a partner were more likely to be lonely, those without a partner underwent a notable shift in their loneliness in the early stages of the pandemic.
“Before COVID-19, older adults without a partner and without children were more likely than those with these ties to experience loneliness. Importantly, when we examined the combination of partnership and parenthood, we found older adults who lacked one tie but had the other (e.g. unpartnered parents or partnered childless) were at highest loneliness risk,” Nekehia Quashie, author of the study and an Assistant Professor of Health studies at The University of Rhode Island told Theravive.
“During COVID-19, the combined status of partnership and parenthood was not significant for loneliness, but the independent status of not having a partner or children was significant. That is, during the first stages of the pandemic, the unpartnered, especially relative to the partnered, remained at higher risk for loneliness and showed higher risks of entering loneliness if they were not lonely before the pandemic. Older adults without children, compared to older parents, as well as older adults without a partner relative to those with a partner, were more likely to continue experiencing loneliness if they were lonely before the pandemic.”
In undertaking the study, Quashie, along with colleagues from the University of Florence, University of Maryland Baltimore County and the SGH Warsaw School of Economics examined data from 35 thousand people aged 50 and older.
The participants were involved in a Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when asked if they had felt lonely recently, the adults who had one tie but lacked the other, like having a partner but not having children, were at the greatest risk for being lonely.
But during the pandemic, when asked if they had felt lonely recently, or had felt lonelier more than they did before the pandemic, it was those without a partner who experienced the most changes to their levels of loneliness.
People who were lonely before the pandemic began were the least likely to stop being lonely during the pandemic, regardless of whether they had children or a partner.
Quashie says the research addresses an important gap in the literature.
“Much of the literature shows partners and children are the main sources of social support that can buffer stress and protect well-being for older adults. The literature, however, does not provide much clarity on whether those without partners and children combined- “kinless”- are indeed most vulnerable to lower well-being,” Quashie said.
“We felt it was important to examine whether unpartnered, childless, and ‘kinless” (those without both kin ties) older adults were indeed at higher risk of loneliness before the pandemic, and whether the pandemic exacerbated these risks for these groups. Our research confirms much of the existing research on partnership for older adults’ well-being but we also contribute to the literature by showing the “sustained” impact of not having a partner as a potential source of support in the context of a major public health and social crisis.”
Notably, those who had neither a partner or children were not at higher risk for loneliness before the pandemic began, and this remained the case in the pandemic’s first wave.
“During the pandemic “kinless” (unpartnered childless) older adults were not at higher risk for loneliness than unpartnered and childless separately. Therefore, “kinless” did not have heightened vulnerability to loneliness which may reflect a combination of their accumulation of coping strategies over their life course, resilience, or lower expectations for social interaction during the pandemic.”
She argues the findings of the study could be significant for policy makers addressing the needs of an ageing society.
“Partnership is the most salient driving factor for loneliness. This has important implications for social policy interventions for aging societies to pay more attention to the scope of social services and engagement that may be implicitly or explicitly designed on the assumption of the availability of partners as a source of support.”
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.