A gradual separation from the world: a qualitative exploration of existential loneliness in old age

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This study sought to explore qualitatively experiences of existential loneliness (EL) in 80 older people living in retirement communities across the United Kingdom and Australia. Qualitative semi-structured interviews permitted in-depth exploration of issues such as biographical narrative, close relationships, loss, feelings of loneliness and retirement living. It was our intention to conduct a large-scale, deep-listening exercise that would provide further clues about EL in older people and the circumstances that give rise to such feelings. Data provided rich insight into older people's inner lives. Core themes identified loss of close attachments, lack of physical touch and intimacy, deterioration of health and body, and lack of an emotional language through which to express EL as central to older people's experiences. Furthermore, there was a suggestion that the move to retirement living was for many people inextricably connected to their experience of EL. Our data further support and extend the notion that EL can be thought of as a gradual sense of separation from the world and that ageing intensifies a myriad of social, emotional and physical circumstances that prompt its emergence. This sense of existential isolation need not be thought of as exclusive to those experiencing extreme frailty or who face death imminently – our data pointed to a clear and gradual emergence of EL throughout later life.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1436 - 1456
Number of pages21
JournalAgeing and Society
Issue number6
Early online date1 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2023


  • existential loneliness
  • old age
  • attachment
  • loss
  • retirement community

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Social Sciences(all)


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