In fact, our desire for social connections seems so strong that some authors have suggested that humans have a basic need to belong (Baumeister and Leary 1995
). Social relationships subtly embrace us in the warmth of self-affirmation, the whispers of encouragement, and the meaningfulness of belonging. They are fundamental to our emotional fulfillment, behavioral adjustment, and cognitive function. Disruption or absence of stable social relationships blasts our minds and biology like few other events.
Social integration is critical to development across the life span, but it is likely to be particularly important in later life. Recent research has shown that emotional closeness in relationships increases with age. At the same time, however, the number of social relationships decreases, and social events triggering significant disruptions in social ties (e.g., death of a parent, children leaving home, relocation, death of a spouse) may increase (e.g., Carstensen, Isaacowitz, and Charles 1999
; Martire et al. 1999
; Rowe and Kahn 1997
; van Tilberg 1998). Finally, shifting demographic patterns are changing the contours and context of social relationships (Hughes and Waite forthcoming). Dramatic changes in the family during the past several decades have led to new, more fragmented family structures and increases in the proportion of people living alone. These shifts in the social environment of aging persons will be even more pronounced among future cohorts of elders.
Most studies of social relationships in later life focus on the amount (e.g., number of individuals, frequency of contact) or content (practical help, advice) of social contact, not on individuals' perceived social isolation (Berkman and Glass 2000
; Seeman 2000
; Uchino, Cacioppo, and Kiecolt-Glaser 1996
). And although memory and cognitive functioning in older adults have attracted considerable research attention in recent years, feelings of isolation and related constructs reflecting social functioning have received less attention. Thus, we know little about the links between objective measures of social integration and individuals' subjective assessments of their social connections. We know even less about the ways in which perceived isolation affects well-being in later life.
However, subjective interpretations of social relationships are likely to be key to understanding the impact of social connections on well-being. When one's intimate and social needs are not adequately met, a complex set of feelings termed loneliness
occurs that motivates one to seek the fulfillment of these needs (Baumeister and Leary 1995
; Weiss 1973). The core experience is being isolated socially and absent both relational and collective connectedness (Russell, Peplau, and Cutrona 1980
; Hawkley et al. 2004
). There is now substantial evidence that loneliness is a core part of a constellation of socioemotional states including self-esteem, mood, anxiety, anger, optimism, fear of negative evaluation, shyness, social skills, social support, dysphoria, and sociability (see, e.g., Berscheid and Reis 1998
; Shaver and Brennan 1991
). Feelings of loneliness are not synonymous with being alone but instead involve feelings of isolation, feelings of disconnectedness, and feelings of not belonging. These feelings in turn are thought to reflect the discrepancy between one's desired and one's actual relationships (Peplau and Perlman 1982
In a meta-analysis of risk factors for loneliness in adulthood and old age, Pinquart and Sorensen (2003)
estimated that approximately 10% of older adults complain of frequent feelings of loneliness. Situational threats to a valued interpersonal relationship ranging from social exclusion, ostracism, rejection, separation, divorce, to bereavement are known to elevate feelings of loneliness. Weiss (1973), for instance, found that a spouse following his or her partner through a series of job transfers may be low in loneliness and well adjusted in one town but lonely and poorly adjusted in another. Nevertheless, loneliness is typically conceptualized as consisting of a stable trait, with individual differences in the set point for feelings of loneliness about which people vacillate depending on the specific circumstances in which they find themselves. Consistent with this reasoning, loneliness has a one-year test-retest reliability of .73 (unpublished conference presentation by Russell, Kao, and Cutrona 1987, cited in Shaver and Brennan 1991
), and levels of loneliness increase little across the adult life span until above the age of 80 (Pinquart and Sorensen 2003
A major limiting factor to studying loneliness in large-scale studies is the difficulty of measuring loneliness in a telephone survey, a typical mode of data collection in large studies. The standard measure of loneliness, the Revised UCLA Loneliness Scale (R-UCLA; Russell et al. 1980
), is not well suited to a telephone survey. The R-UCLA was designed to be self-administered; it has 20 items with four response categories each. Such a scale is too long and too complex for a telephone interview.
As part of a large, multi-level study of social isolation and health in the aging process, we developed a three-item loneliness scale for use on a telephone survey. The scale has three items and a simplified set of response categories but appears to measure overall loneliness quite well. In this article, we describe the scale and document its psychometric properties in two studies. We then assess the relationship between loneliness and several commonly used measures of objective social isolation. As expected, we find that objective and subjective isolation are related. However, the relationship is relatively modest, indicating that the quantitative and qualitative aspects of social relationships are distinct. This result suggests the importance of studying both aspects of social relationships in the aging process.