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Loneliness and the Social Network

Date:09 January 2018
Author:Gijs Westra, Felipe Melo Pissardo en Stijn Ringnalda
The village of Garmerwolde (source:
The village of Garmerwolde (source:

Ageing and loneliness in a village
In the first period of this year, we did a research into loneliness among older adults in Garmerwolde, a village near Groningen. This research is relevant in light of recent demographic changes in the Netherlands. Namely, the population of the Netherland is ageing. Literature shows that the number of social contacts decrease and feelings of loneliness increase with age, therefore, a larger part of the population is at risk of being lonely. This has negative outcomes on health. Furthermore, the Dutch government has started a transition to encourage older adults to remain longer in their home, instead of investing in retirement homes. Remaining at home can increase the chance of loneliness and isolated living. Especially among elderly who suffer from the loss of mobility and/or the loss of a partner.

Risk of loneliness in Garmerwolde and the pairing initiative                        Therefore, this research looked into the dynamics of loneliness of older adults and their social networks. This research has taken place out of interest of the You&Co foundation. You&Co aims at combatting loneliness among elderly. The foundation has set up a project to pair two older adults who share feelings of loneliness. In this way, a pair would meet on a regular basis for a cup of coffee and a conversation. Through this method, the foundation hopes to enlarge older adults their social network to combat isolation. The foundation has contacted the ‘science shop’ of the University of Groningen to ask researchers to analyze the frequency and nature of experienced feelings of loneliness in Garmerwolde: a small village with quite a few elderly people. So seemingly a village at risk for prevalence of loneliness. You&Co also wanted to know whether this pairing of older adults could be an effective countermeasure to loneliness.

A two-step method
To identify the social networks and map out the social activity of older adults, we firstly handed out surveys. These surveys explored the quality, quantity, and frequency of their social networks. Quality refers to the quality of the friendships, quantity to the number of social relations, and frequency the frequency of social interactions. Furthermore, there were 6 questions included out of the Amsterdam Loneliness Index. This is a method to measure and compare loneliness. It includes positive questions as “I feel like I have someone to rely on in times of trouble” and negatively posed questions as “Sometimes I feel let down by people”. The possible answers were posed on a Likert scale. With these answers, a score between 0 and 6 could be calculated, 0 meaning no experienced loneliness at all, 6 meaning high feelings of loneliness.

Subsequently, based on the scores five respondents were asked for a one-hour interview. In this interview, several themes were explored to get a better understanding of the dynamics around loneliness. The interviews consisted out of 4 parts: one part about the village in general, a second part about their social relations, a third on their perceptions and experiences of loneliness, and, finally, a part about possible measures to tackle loneliness, especially with regards towards the idea of coupling.

Unexpected results: barely any loneliness in Garmerwolde
The survey showed that a very small minority of the residents in Garmerwolde had high loneliness scores, whereas most of the village had a score of 0 or 1. Nobody scored the maximum score. All social activities were ranked high in terms of quality, regardless of frequency, except for religious activities. Highest rated were visits from family. However, statistical test did not show correlations between loneliness score and frequency of contact with family members. There were correlations, however, with the frequency of contact with friends, feeling of connectedness with people, and feeling of connectedness with residents of Garmerwolde. The latter one having the greatest effect on loneliness score.

Perceptions of loneliness vs feelings of loneliness                                            During the interviews, a similar image was painted. Most interviewees confirmed that they did not believe there to be many lonely older adults in Garmerwolde. In fact, most of the interviewees with low loneliness scores could not believe someone would be lonely in Garmerwolde. How they perceived loneliness is illustrated in the following quote:

“That you have a house and don’t see anyone anymore. That you probably don’t leave the house anymore as well. You are facing health problems and don’t meet anymore.” (Interviewee 2)

Many respondents saw loneliness in a quantitative manner, namely having not enough friends and social activities. Their proposed solutions where along those lines: they need to leave the house and then having social activities will solve it. Furthermore, they saw loneliness as a constant state of mind. However, interviews with people with a high loneliness score contradicted these perceptions. In fact, the feeling of loneliness was described as:

"It slumbers in the background and does not manifest itself a lot. I do not get sick from it. It gets a bit worse in the winter when life gets smaller."
(Interviewee 1)

This shows loneliness as more of a feeling in the background, that is triggered by some periods in time. Furthermore, interviewees who did experience loneliness did not have a lack of social relations or social interactions. On the contrary, they had a very active social life and a wide social network! In this light, the concept of loneliness needs to be reconsidered, as it is not solvable by just creating social activities or creating a new social contact though pairing.

Towards a new concept of loneliness: lack of meaningful contacts
If loneliness is not a lack of social interactions or social contacts, what then is? In fact, interviews showed that loneliness is not just about having a social contact: it is about having a connection. Indeed, one interviewee felt loneliness because:

 “the people I like and get along with are all practical people. I’m not a doer, I have to do a lot of things, but it is not my favorite thing.

(Interviewer) You see yourself more as a thinker?

Yes, I actually do. You don’t meet a lot of people like that around here."
(Interviewee 1)

As the interviewee did not share the same interest with his fellow residents, he got no satisfaction from interacting with them. Therefore, to make a connection with a person to tackle feelings of loneliness, this contact needs to be meaningful. Interesting enough, another interviewee showed that such a connection does not necessarily need to be established trough contact with other humans only. When this person felt some loneliness, he did the following:

“Then I go out cycling. Then I am outdoors for a while. You meet some people, see people busy in nature, see dogs and cats on your bike. That you have seen nature and you go home and you have been outdoors.”
(Interviewee 3)

Rather than meetings with friends or family, this person was able to establish meaningful connections with passersby and nature. Thus, the conditions to establish a meaningful relationship are highly personal.

In conclusion, there seems to be a mismatch between the conception of how loneliness is perceived by outsiders and how it is actually felt in reality. This is problematic as this makes it hard to identify lonely people. As loneliness is misunderstood, it is hard to gain understanding from your neighbours in case loneliness is felt. Especially since the common-sense perception of loneliness, both in the village of Garmerwolde and in policy,  sees loneliness as easily solvable and associates loneliness with failure to establish social contacts. Possible solutions to feelings of loneliness can still be found in the idea of coupling of elderly. However, it should be kept in mind that individuals need to make a meaningful connection. Therefore, the two paired persons need to really share some similarities in interests.



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