Loneliness—A Canary in the Coal Mine

“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” Mother Teresa

Loneliness and Window 1According to a recent report, more than a third of adults over age 60 experience frequent or intense loneliness and these numbers are increasing (1).

We cannot overstate the consequences of these alarming numbers.

In addition to the distressing emotional experiences that accompany feelings of not belonging, research tells us that loneliness predicts an increase in the progression of dementia, symptoms of depression, nursing home admission, and a host of negative health outcomes, such as stroke and heart disease (2).

In residential senior living the numbers get worse. Loneliness is reported by one out of two residents, and those are just the ones who are willing to express how they really feel.

The Canary in the Coal Mine

Loneliness in senior living settings may be symptomatic of a larger societal problem. Like canaries in a coal mine that alert workers to a potential deadly gas leak, residents suffering the serious effects of loneliness could be a warning of impending consequences of the lack of meaningful social connections in the ‘consumer culture’ of our society as a whole.

DiscouragementA consumeristic society is one that places a high value on self sufficiency and status, often to the exclusion of meaningful social connections (3).

For the miners, distress from a canary was an urgent signal to clear the mine.

Just as carbon monoxide is not easily detected by human senses, so it is with loneliness. Busy looking social calendars posted in entrance ways, and the stigma attached to admitting loneliness, can mask this serious problem (4).

The extent of the loneliness described by residents (5), serve as an indicator or a warning of the increasing mental health problems in these settings.

In Western society, we have many distractions to divert our attention from developing meaningful social connections. Commercial interests that heavily influence our media and culture place little emphasis on altruistic activities such as providing social support for each other, generosity and helping each other – yet these societal attributes are predictors of happiness (10).

Our focus on the acquisition of ‘material’ possessions contributes to loneliness and can form a self-perpetuating cycle (6). Materialism can take many forms including addictive relationships to status, entertainment, shopping, etc., and this fosters social isolation.

As a society we tend to focus on short-term gains and immediate pleasure gained through consumption, as the benefits of volunteering or building meaningful relationships take longer to realize (7). However, when the need for social connections is not met, the need for higher levels of materialism increases (8).

According to Bauer (2012), this in turn increases a form of competitiveness, while reducing trust and the need to spend time in social activities.

In what has been described as the difficulty of ‘leaving the loop’, the need to cling to material possessions may be dictated by the fear of the pain of social isolation, thereby perpetuating materialism (6).

Thus, the loneliness experienced by those in senior living may be a microcosm or representation of the loneliness happening on a larger scale throughout our society.

As our population continues to age. residents in senior living like canaries in a coal mine, are providing an important warning signal that there is a larger problem in our society.

Two Key Variables of Happiness

IMG_7357Research indicates that investing in mental health has the most impact on happiness and is associated with the lowest cost.

For example, a recent landmark survey of the state of global happiness which ranks 155 countries by their happiness, suggests that the reduced happiness among Americans is due to social rather than economic causes (9).

Two of the key variables of happiness include generosity and social support, both of which increase well-being while simultaneously reducing the use of scarce resources (10).

Importantly, the reports of loneliness by residents in senior living indicate the need for a new approach. In most senior living environments our consumeristic influences are reflected in the recreational approach to social care.

Typically structured with a relentless focus on light social events, it perpetuates a form of materialism and subsequent alienation. This form of materialism is something that can ‘crowd out’ social relationships (3).

Give More, Live More

One form of volunteering that shows much promise is peer support. Building a culture of positive peer support is based on the deliberate cultivation of compassion, combined with action.

Helping One Another-3 - CopyIncreasing evidence suggests that purposeful social interaction based on social support and giving to peers, keeps people healthy longer, particularly when engaging as a group (11).

When peers share their worries, fears, struggles and successes with one another—they find out that they are not alone. By providing solid structures that engage residents in formal volunteering we are heeding the canary in the coal mine.

With the right support in place, residents have potential to reduce social isolation and loneliness and help one another build lives filled with meaning and purpose.


(1) United States Senate Special Committee on Aging. (2017). Aging without community: The consequences of isolation and loneliness.   Retrieved from

(2) Cacioppo, S., Capitanio, J. P., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2014). Toward a neurology of loneliness. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1464-1504. doi:10.1037/a0037618

(3) Lane, R. E. (2000). The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

(4) canary-in-a-coal-mine. (n.d.).   Retrieved from

(5) Theurer, K., Mortenson, W. B., Stone, R. I., Suto, M. J., & Timonen, V. (2015). The need for a social revolution in residential care. Journal of Aging Studies, 35, 201-210. doi:10.1016/j.jaging.2015.08.011

(6) Brownie, S., & Horstmanshof, L. (2011). The management of loneliness in aged care residents: An important therapeutic target for gerontological nursing. Geriatric Nursing, 35(5), 318-325. doi:10.1016/j.gerinurse.2011.05.003

(7) Pieters, R. (2013). Bidirectional dynamics of materialism and loneliness: Not just a vicious cycle. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(1), 615-631. doi:10.1086/671564

(8) Lane, R. E. (1994). The road not taken: Friendship, consumerism and happiness. Critical Review, 8(4), 521-554. doi:10.1080/08913819408443359

(9) Bauer, M. A., Wilkie, J. E. B., Kim, J. K., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2012). Cueing consumerism: Situational materialism undermines personal and social well-being. Psychological Science, 23(5), 517-523. doi:10.1177/0956797611429579

(10) Sachs, J., D. (2017). Restoring American Happiness. Retrieved from New York, NY:

(11) Helliwell, J. F., Huang, H., & Wang, S. (2017). The Social Foundations of World Happiness. Retrieved from New York, NY:

(12) Knight, C., Haslam, S. A., & Haslam, C. (2010). In home or at home? How collective decision making in a new care facility enhances social interaction and wellbeing amongst older adults. Ageing & Society, 30(08), 1393-1418. doi:10.1017/S0144686X10000656


  1. Teresa

    Very much agree with and appreciate this article, especially at this Holiday time of year. Working with younger staff carers and trying to communicate how simple it would be to brighten a person’s day and make a difference rather than doing more ‘for’ and gifting material items is an uphill battle.

    1. Clayton MacKay

      Thanks for your kind comments Teresa.

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