Mitigating loneliness after spousal loss

Monash University

A recent study has found that loneliness is a greater challenge in widowhood than social isolation or lack of social support, and strategies that help the bereaved form a new sense of identity could be beneficial.

Previous studies have shown that loneliness can increase your mortality risk to at least the same extent as obesity and smoking as well as your risk of serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease. The study highlighted that while social support and social engagements with family and friends either remained the same or increased following spousal death, it was not enough to buffer the stress experienced in the transition into widowhood, with loneliness posing the greatest challenge.

Interventions to alleviate loneliness that are tailored to suit the needs of the bereaved such as supported socialisation, cognitive behavioural therapy and social prescribing are worth pursuing, the study found.

The research, which was co-funded by the Heart Foundation, is now published in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences.

In the United Kingdom, doctors have the resources and infrastructure to link patients with social services, to prescribe group activities such as cooking classes and walking groups instead of medication in a bid to address the social determinants contributing to poor health and loneliness, known as social prescribing.

“Increasing social interactions with friends and relatives may be an active coping strategy for spousal death, but formal social activities such as clubs and organisations are not for everyone and may not be sufficient to provide the emotional support required to alleviate the loneliness experienced when transitioning into widowhood,” said lead author Dr Rosanne Freak-Poli, a life-course epidemiologist at the Monash School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine.

The study found that widowed men suffered more than women, with a three-fold compared to a two-fold increase in loneliness after spousal loss.

However financial resources were protective for men, showing higher incomes were associated with less loneliness, and wealth was associated with more social activities with family and friends.

“Lower financial resources may limit opportunities to purchase and participate in social activities that could alleviate loneliness,” Dr Freak-Poli said.

For some, the inevitable loss of a spouse or partner comes quickly and unexpectedly, but for others, spousal health may decline over many months or years. Either way, it leads to a substantive change in the social health of the bereaved, which can start to occur in the period before death, particularly for those with caregiving duties.

“While it is important for health care workers to screen for loneliness as it can be a precursor to more severe clinical depression, it is imperative that they investigate alternative strategies to assist the bereaved form a new sense of identity, to help mitigate the loneliness which accompanies spousal loss,” Dr Freak-Poli said.

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