Solitary Refinement: Not All Older Adults Who Live Alone Are at Risk

A recent study documents the differences in the social networks of older adults living alone and identifies which types of the networks are associated with better and worse well-being.

In light of growing evidence of the negative health impacts of loneliness and social isolation, researchers took a closer look at the social networks of older adults who live alone. This study documents the differences in these individuals’ social networks and their implications.

The researchers examined social networks of 10,047 individuals age 50 and better in the European Survey of Health and Retirement, and compared them to 43,336 individuals in the study who live with others.

Their analysis revealed four types of social networks of older adults who live alone. The first and largest (34 percent) was a “restricted” network, characterized by having a low number of kin and non-kin, low levels of contact with close kin and non-kin, and few close social network members nearby. Individuals in this group were most likely to have never been married.

The next largest group (29 percent) was “child-based,” characterized by individuals relying primarily on their children for social contact. The “friend-oriented” group (22 percent) showed social networks with higher proportions of friends and lower proportions of kin compared to the above groups. Lastly, the “diverse” group (14 percent) had large kin and non-kin networks, with the highest likelihood of daily contact and many people in their networks nearby. This study showed that the proportions in each group varied by region.

Compared to individuals living with others, the restricted, child-based, and friend-oriented groups were more likely to show less life satisfaction, while the diverse group was more likely to show higher life satisfaction. In addition, those in restricted networks were more likely to have higher depression and more dissatisfaction with their social networks. Individuals with diverse and child-based networks were more satisfied with their social networks compared to individuals living with others.

This study highlights a number of important differences in the social networks of individuals who live alone, and suggests that the most at-risk group is that with restricted networks. Ideally, future studies can further examine how best to support this group and shed light on the differences in proportions of these groups in non-European countries.


Djundeva M, Dykstra PA, and Fokkema T. Is living alone “aging alone”? Solitary living, network types and well-being. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. (2018). DOI: 10.1093/geronb/gby119

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