Alcohol And Seniors


Seniors Speak Out...  About Loneliness

In the fall of 2001, as part of the Seeking Solutions project, we had the opportunity to ask seniors in three Canadian communities about several aspects of dealing with and preventing alcohol problems among seniors.

Among other things, we asked their views on how to prevent isolation. Isolation is  a common feature of many seniors' lives when they are experiencing alcohol problems. They offered several different perspectives and insights into the issue of loneliness and isolation. Some of the seniors involved in these discussions were in recovery. Others were from the general seniors' population.

One of the most poignant comments about loneliness and isolation came from a woman at the very end of the focus group. It had to do with the role of seniors in society generally:  

 "I'd like to see a message that 'It's ok to be a senior'. . an attitudinal change. I'd love to see on the side of a bus 'We love our seniors'."

Loneliness in later life often exists within a broader context of how we as a society view and treat seniors.


Seniors Speak Out

In the groups, seniors talked about isolation in the context of health changes, lifestyle changes and loss of major support. Men spoke about issues such as the strong effect that the death of a wife has on the man (what is seen as "acceptable" grieving for men). 

Some seniors identified that the loneliness is "self imposed", in the sense that the person cannot or "will not" make friends with others. Some people are loners by nature or personality. The seniors also pointed out that isolation and loneliness is different if the person lives in his or her own home or in an apartment. A person can feel lonely in either setting. A person can be surrounded by people and still feel very lonely.

Here are some of their comments:


"I am so isolated myself; it's hard to say what would help others from being isolated. I am fairly new to my community. I find it very hard to meet new people. I can't just go to a new place. "


Some emphasized the personal effort:


 "Go visit them and see if they want to come out. I have a girlfriend who is being a turtle. She says she doesn't want to go out, but I talk her into it and she says she feels better after."



 "Don't automatically assume seniors can't [do certain things] -I have another friend who is a livewire- who is 82, who walks all over the place, she goes to the school outdoor track daily."


Making use of the available community resources was another strategy:


"There are lots of nice programs at the centre, but people often not aware of them. [However] some of the ones that might prevent loneliness or isolation aren't offered in winter (e.g. teas)."

Small personal gestures can reduce a senior's feelings of loneliness:


 "It doesn't cost five dollars to smile. All these people walking alone, being alone. It's very sad".


"Small things" can make a big difference in an isolated senior's life:


 "Just going out of your way in the apartment building to say "Hello", especially if you say the person's name. It's amazing how pleased they look."


Seniors explain some of the strategies that their friends use to prevent or reduce loneliness. For example, one woman takes the shuttle bus to the grocery store whether or not she needs the groceries. The shuttle bus and the shopping became not only ways of doing the task of getting food, but also helps to reduce her isolation. For her, this was a chance to talk and be with others.

Seniors explain that it is important to recognize how shy or awkward a senior may feel, and how it was important for others to recognize and help overcome those feelings. One senior gives  a personal  example of inviting a woman to the local seniors' dinner. Upon noticing her hesitation ("I won't know anyone there"), she also offered to sit with the woman  at the table. In this particular case, a small extra effort helped the older woman get over the initial "bump" of shyness. By the end of the meal, she had met some others with similar interests.
Seniors also stress  that we need to be mindful of the relative friendliness of places that we are suggesting to seniors as ways of reducing their isolation. A particular place may not be or feel right to this individual. Seniors in one community pointed out that their 55+ centre has very young people (55+) which meant it felt less of suitable place for people in their late 70s or 80s. It costs money to attend  the centre and was not affordable to many. The location of the centre can be a barrier, as can the response of other seniors. Seniors noted:


 "You want to feel wanted there, needed there."



 "It can feel like a cliquey place." (For example, people who have attended a long time may feel a proprietary right to use of certain facilities).



"It is located on the other side of town, we are seen as on 'the wrong side of the tracks'."



"There can be senior 'bullies' (people who take over or push their weight around). Also people bickering over small things".


To overcome some of these psychological and social barriers in seniors' centres,  they suggested 

-- having someone to meet and greet any new people, 

-- introduce them around (which is one thing that some centres actively do). 

-- have fairness and sharing guidelines to politely remind people.

Loneliness and Recovery

Seniors in recovery face special challenges when it comes to the loneliness they are feeling. Those who were were social drinkers (in the sense, they drank with friends), note that being in recovery can be extremely isolating. As will be discussed in more detail in the upcoming  "Seniors Speak Out...On Stigma", seniors in recovery often find they lose two sets of friends:

a) the drinking partners because they are now  seen as non-drinkers and, even worse as  "party-poopers" and

b) by their non-drinking friends because they  have been identified as  having an alcohol problem.

They note that social expectations with which seniors were raised can be isolating as well:


"We were raised with 'What goes on in the house, stays in the house. A senior is less likely to talk with others openly about a problem, if he or she carries that expectation. It is hard to get things off your chest."


Here are some of their other comments on isolation and loneliness:


 [It is helpful to have]... "a former (old) friend to fall back on when you feel the compulsion to get on that bus to the casino, to go into your bedroom to that bottle you have hidden away."



 "Walking [helps], but I hate to go alone (having someone to walk with). I get so tired of walking alone, I'd rather drink and go to sleep. Even being able to walk with one person...I was so lonely, I would have jumped a bridge."




"Maybe if they had an outreach group; or going to a self help group."


 "If doctors were more aware of resources in a community". [They could tell their lonely patients about these].



Seniors in recovery strongly emphasized the value of alcohol support groups with people their own age, not only to help with the alcohol related issues, but also as one way of being together  and handling loneliness. They stressed the needs to feel comfortable, safe in these groups, "Where you can take your masks off."


"The value of this group. We come here to discover. We don't come here to be taught something."


Also, they pointed out  that what you call the group is important to seniors.  They express a strong preference for positive names for groups, that do not  focus on alcohol  in the name. The general way you describe the group's function to seniors when getting them involved is important too:


"I've been asked  'Is it an education group, a help group?'  I tell them 'No, it's a discussion group-we talk and share experiences.'"



Seniors in recovery value the privacy, and confidentiality of the support group. Trust, familiarity, and similarity (similar problems) are important in the group. They noted that the location of the support group or other activity is very important. If the support group is any distance for the older person, that makes it very hard for the senior to attend, especially if the person does not drive, has to take buses, stand out after dark, or in freezing cold weather:


"It (transportation) can be a roadblock."


Phone contact kept on surfacing as another important way to reach isolated seniors, particularly those experiencing an alcohol problem.  It showed that people cared. Also, it provided a  person-to-person link where the senior might not feel up to being part of a group or did not feel physically, emotionally or socially up to having visitors. 


"A phone friend may help-we can call each other. Ask how they are doing; someone to talk to."


"Someone to unburden to - about what you are going through, feel... I talk with a young friend who is gay. We can talk with each other. We can share anything. You need a buddy. "




Gerontological Research on Reducing or Preventing Loneliness

One of the fundamental things we been slowly recognizing in gerontology over the last half decade is that there is an important difference between being alone and being lonely. There is also a difference between being emotionally isolated and being socially isolated. You can have lots of people around you and not feel "connected" to them.

Despite stereotypes to the contrary, in general, older adults report less distress as a part of loneliness than young adults. Being alone for many older adults is generally not viewed as distressful. For some people, being alone is deliberately sought and they enjoy it. (Gibson, 2000). Because of their maturity and life experiences, they may be more able to appreciate the growth and personal development that may result from being alone. Being alone is often seen as having beneficial effects to many older adults, such as developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of oneself, an increase in the value that the person gives to friendships and social support, and discovery of the resources the person has for coping with loneliness. (Roach, 2000) .  

However, when loneliness (as opposed to being alone) is present for older adults, it can be felt strongly and deeply. At its most intense, it can lead to suicide. Loneliness reflects a dissatisfaction with social relationships that the person has or does not have. Research indicates that there can be negative emotions, attitudes, and personality characteristics associated with loneliness. Each of these can inhibit the person's ability to acquire and develop supportive relations and reconstruct his or her personal network following a stressful life event. Also emotional isolation and social isolation are two distinct dimensions of loneliness in older people (See van-Baarsen, (2001)). In gerontological research, people have been looking at ways of reducing loneliness. 

Here are two somewhat  different approaches that have had success in reducing loneliness among seniors generally. 


Telephone Support : 

A project in Nova Scotia looked at telephone support groups for seniors with disabilities, where groups met once a week via teleconferencing for 12 weeks. 

Interviews with interviews participants and leaders revealed decreased support needs, diminished loneliness, and enhanced coping. Selection, training, and support of peer and professional leaders and member control of discussions were important ingredients of successful support groups (Stewart, Mann, Jackson et al., 2001) 


Friendship Programs : 

Can seniors learn skills for improving old friendships, or building new ones? 

Research from the Netherlands with older women suggests it is possible and helpful. (Stevens & Van Tilburg, 2000). Thirty-two women aged 54-80 (mean age 63.2) participated in a friendship program for older women organized by a local older adults services agency. Theirs lives were compared with 913 women aged 54-84 who hadn't been involved in the program . 

The researchers found that more women who had completed the friendship course were successful in reducing their loneliness compared with the control participants. The women in the education group had also developed new friendships of varying degrees of closeness and their friendship networks were more complex (people tied to people in more varied ways).


References and Readings

Gibson, H. B. (2000) Loneliness in later life, St. Martins Press, New York, NY.

Roach, A. (2000) Loneliness and the life cycle. Psychological-Reports. Vol. 86 (No. 2): p. 629-642.

Stevens, N. & van Tilburg, T. (2000) Stimulating friendship in later life: a strategy for reducing loneliness among older women Educational-Gerontology. Vol. 26 (No. 1): p. 15-35,

van-Baarsen, B., Snijders, T., Smit, J. & van-Duijn, MAJ. ( Feb. 2001) Educational-and-Psychological-Measurement. Vol. 61 (No. 1), pages 119-135.



Other Resources on Loneliness has a  "Seniors Meeting Place", which discussions many different kinds of topics including loneliness and romance. See


Page last updated Thursday April 01, 2004

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