A solitary bench surrounded by trees.

Existential Loneliness in Old Age

This project explores the concept of loneliness among older people as they confront loss, uncertainty, and approach the end of life.

Dr Chao Fang and his external collaborator Dr Sam Carr (University of Bath) have been working on both conceptualisation and public advocacy regarding existential loneliness among older people. While loneliness has gained significant public attention, especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, what loneliness truly means and how it affects older people require further clarification. By viewing loneliness as a deeply embodied experience that extends beyond the mere loss of meaningful connections, this project has illuminated a profound dimension of what growing older can signify for people.

From 2019 to 2021, 80 older individuals between the ages of 55 and 93 were interviewed in retirement communities across the UK and Australia. This in-depth investigation has revealed that loneliness in old age can be experienced as a painful separation from the external world, where one's life, memories, narratives, and identity gradually become forgotten, unimportant, and undervalued, ultimately lost in the past. The study has also highlighted the lack of available social resources to comprehend and support existential loneliness in old age.

Here is a publicly accessible article featuring the study titled “Loneliness, loss and regret: what getting old really feels like” which is one of the most widely read articles on The Conversation.

Chao is currently collaborating with various interdisciplinary stakeholders, including academics, practitioners, and charitable organisations, to explore the potential for further examining existential loneliness in different settings, such as social care, community, and art-based support. Future directions for this project include designing and evaluating support mechanisms (interventions) to help older individuals and those providing support better cope with existential loneliness. There is also an opportunity to extend the focus on existential loneliness beyond the context of aging, as these deeper concerns related to meaning and connection are prevalent irrespective of age and socio-cultural backgrounds.

On a related note, Chao is also a member of the European research network that explores the conceptual boundaries and empirical implications of “Tiredness of Life in Older People".

Related publications

Fang, C., Comery, A., & Carr, S. (2023). "They want you to know who they really are inside of the old visage"-biographical storytelling as a methodological tool to explore emotional challenges in old age. BMC Geriatrics, 23(1), 386. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12877-023-04094-8

Carr, S., & Fang, C. (2023). A gradual separation from the world: a qualitative exploration of existential loneliness in old age. Ageing & Society, 43(6), 1436 - 1456.

Fang, C., & Carr, S. (2021). “They’re going to die at some point, but we’re all going to die” – a qualitative exploration of bereavement in later life. Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying. 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1177/00302228211053058



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