UCI News

Shedding light on loneliness

Professor Karen Rook studies relationships and how they affect one's health and happiness. Her research has shed light on the psychological toll of loneliness on the elderly.

by Kathryn Bold, University Communications | May 31, 2011
Shedding light on loneliness
UCI psychologist Karen Rook researches the psychological effects of loneliness on the elderly. Steve Zylius/UC Irvine Communications

UC Irvine psychologist Karen Rook can trace her
interest in how loneliness affects the elderly to her childhood, when
she saw a much-loved, once-robust grandmother decline markedly after
losing her husband.

Unable
to manage the family farm on her own, her grandmother moved into an
apartment. After breaking her hip in a fall, she ended up frail and
forlorn in a nursing home, away from the life and friends she had once
known.

“The sadness and loneliness of many nursing home residents is simply
heartbreaking,” Rook says. “Family members can do only so much. We
visited my grandmother every week, but at the end of each visit, she
would become very quiet and struggle to fight back tears. It tore my
father apart. Because of these experiences, my first life’s goal was to
build better nursing homes.” But she chose a different path.

Through
her research, Rook is working to draw attention to seniors’ social
needs and prevent them from spending their last days in painful
isolation. The UCI associate dean of research in social ecology and
professor of psychology & social behavior has studied relationships
and their effect on people’s health and well-being for 30 years.

“My
work — and that of many other researchers — shows there’s something
fundamentally important about having relationships,” she says. “Without
them, there’s a risk to our mental health, our longevity and our quality
of life.”

Social connections are important to all age groups, but Rook focuses
on older adults because they’re frequently coping with the death of
loved ones as well as increased physical limitations.

“I
was drawn to this field because a great deal of change occurs in
people’s social networks when they reach their 70s and 80s. The loss of a
spouse and the loss of close friends are common. Declining health and
mobility also can make it more difficult to get together with others,”
Rook says. “It’s important to question how seniors’ social needs are met
when such losses and declines occur.”

She
wondered, for instance, whether making new friends or reviving existing
relationships improved the mental outlook of recently widowed older
women. Findings from the 2004 study surprised her.

“We
asked to what extent new or rekindled social ties helped alleviate
loneliness,” Rook says. “We found little evidence of benefits. It takes
time for new relationships to gel, of course, but it also may be
inherently difficult for them to offer psychological benefits comparable
to those of a decades-long marital relationship.”

Even
when adult children provide a great deal of emotional and practical
support, widowed seniors may still feel lonely. “They continue to miss
the companionship and unique connection supplied by the spouse,” she
says.

“Companionship
is important to our well-being. It’s not just who you can count on for
support in times of stress but who you spend time with on a day-to-day
basis.”

Friendship is a topic Rook has explored among all age groups. Whether
you’re 25 or 85, she notes, “getting together with good friends is
restorative, because it provides a respite from daily stresses and
worries. It’s also affirming. It signals, without needing to be spoken,
that you’re valued enough by others that they just want to spend time
with you.”

Still, being lonely isn’t always enough to motivate people to try to meet others and risk rejection.

“Lonely
people want companionship but sometimes fear that their overtures may
not be reciprocated. Their hesitation can cause loneliness to persist,”
Rook says. “Making friends later in life isn’t easy. When you’re
younger, you can meet people through school or work who have things in
common with you. The elderly usually are retired from the workforce and
don’t have the ready access to peers with similar interests that schools
provide.”

In a
current study of more than 900 older people, she’s finding that the
loneliest individuals are reluctant to forge relationships, but if they
can overcome that initial resistance and make new friends, their
happiness increases.

“We’re
fortunate to have Professor Rook shedding light on some of the
mysteries of aging in a way that better prepares us to respond to some
of its challenges,” says Valerie Jenness, dean of social ecology.

“Understanding
the nexus among aging, changing social relations and health is not only
important to further our knowledge of developmental psychology, it’s an
imperative first step toward creating policies sensitive to the needs
and desires of an aging population.”

Rook
is frequently moved by seniors’ stories and struggles. “Later life is a
time when there’s not just vulnerability but also incredible fortitude,”
she says. “Older adults often exhibit truly impressive resilience.”

She hopes her research will facilitate interventions to help alleviate
loneliness and enhance well-being in the elderly — which could lead to
better nursing homes after all.