Loneliness rates higher in older people with visual impairments


Visually impaired elderly are generally more isolated and unhappier in life, than those with good vision.



Dr Andy Towers.

Christmas can be a lonely time for many, and new research shows loneliness is much more prevalent, and more severe in older people who are visually impaired.

Massey University researchers from the government-funded Health, Work and Retirement Longitudinal Study have found that while 35 per cent of older New Zealanders reported feeling moderately or severely lonely, this figure increased to 53 per cent in those with visual impairments. Visually impaired older adults also had poorer health, wealth and mobility than those without visual impairment, making them one of our most at-risk groups for loneliness and social isolation.

Dr Andy Towers, a Massey researcher involved in the study, states that this is one of the few investigations of loneliness in visually impaired older adults and highlights important concerns. “While loneliness in older New Zealanders is at a similar level to that found in other countries, the important new finding is that visually impaired older adults are actually at significantly higher risk of loneliness.

“Visual impairment can severely increase social isolation because they reduce our ability to interact with family, friends, and the community on our own terms, meaning we rely more on others to initiate contact. Those in our study with visual impairment reported poorer independence than non-impaired older adults, so it’s not surprising to find they also had poorer quality of life.” Dr Towers says loneliness is not often addressed in vision rehabilitation programmes designed for older adults, yet these findings show rates of loneliness are high in this population, which is a concern.

Quality of life

Dr Towers reveals the amount of social contact was one of the most important predictors of quality of life in older adults with visual impairments. “Quality of life is enhanced by having a wide pool of social contacts beyond close friends and family. This helps us all feel connected with our wider community, and not feel so isolated and alone.”

These findings are particularly relevant in the lead up to Christmas, when many older adults with restricted mobility feel the burden of social isolation. “We should all be making an effort to reach out to those in our community who struggle at this time, particularly those older adults with impairments that restrict their ability to socialise. No-one should be alone, especially at Christmas.”

The exploration of loneliness in older New Zealanders is one of the many sub-projects that Massey University researchers are exploring in the award-winning Health, Work and Retirement Longitudinal Study. “This is one of the most comprehensive studies of older adults in the world. We’re working with colleagues from the US, Europe and the World Health Organisation to explore how well older New Zealanders age in comparison to their international counterparts. Establishing this longitudinal study is without a doubt one of the best investments the New Zealand government has made in understanding healthy ageing in all New Zealanders.”

The Relationship between Loneliness and Perceived Quality of Life among Older Persons with Visual Impairments was published in the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. It was co-authored by Emeritus Professor Steven La Grow, Dr Andy Towers, Dr Polly Yeung, Professor Fiona Alpass and Professor Christine Stephens.

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