For frail, older people, the largely unexplored world of existential loneliness is a suffering that can affect people as they leave familiarity and enter an unknown future, exposing them to a sense of vulnerability and isolation.

For frail, older people, the largely unexplored world of existential loneliness is a suffering that can affect people as they leave familiarity and enter an unknown future, exposing them to a sense of vulnerability and isolation.

The findings are a result of a study carried out by Malmö University researcher Helena Larsson. It looks at the issue from the relatives’ perspectives and highlights that dialogue can help if it is known in which situations the need arises, and how it can be detected.

When arranging activities, it is often the social loneliness you want to access, but loneliness is so much great and complex than that.

Loneliness covers a broad spectrum, the type of loneliness that more often comes to mind is social loneliness which is observed, for example, by seeing how many people live by themselves or eat alone.

“When arranging activities, it is often the social loneliness you want to access, but loneliness is so much great and complex than that. If you want to do something about it, it is important to know what kind you are talking about,” says Larsson.

Existential loneliness is described as a deeper form of loneliness, a suffering that can be experienced even if one does not live in social or physical isolation. This type of loneliness is relatively unexplored.

“We want to be able to alleviate this, so it is a prerequisite to know in what situations existential loneliness emerges, and how we can detect it, so that society and health care professionals can go in and support a little extra when needed,” says Larsson.

Existential issues become more important as you approach life's final phase. The project ‘Existential Loneliness - a challenge in the care of seriously ill older people (LONE)’, explores the existential loneliness of frail, older people from different perspectives — frail older persons, their relatives, and care staff.

“Relatives all around are important from a social perspective. At the same time, close relatives have a complex role as they both become involved as carers and have their role as close relatives.”

Larsson's study shows that existential loneliness occurs in transitional stages when one loses one's fixed point. It may be, for example, having to move, no longer being able to participate in an activity, or the loss of a partner.

The relief from such feelings most commonly comes from conversations with close relatives.

“Talking about how you feel, both in formal groups and informal family and friends settings, is important. Especially with others who have gone through the same thing, where you can meet around that experience. It's nothing new, but I might not have thought it was that important,” says Larsson.

Text: Hanna Svederborn

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