By Steve Moran

Researchers from the University of San Diego Medical Center are studying the physical, cognitive, and mental health of a group of 100+ independent living residents in a San Diego area senior living community. They just released some results in a paper titled:

“Qualitative study of loneliness in a senior housing community: 

the importance of wisdom and other coping strategies”

While limited in scope, the paper provides some monstrous food for thought when it comes to programming for senior living.


I have been largely obsessed with culture and human capital for the last couple of years but in reading this article I am reminded once again that I kind of grow crazy with how little attention we pay to life enrichment in senior living — and I believe it costs senior living communities collectively tens to hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

When we start investing in life enrichment like we do dining, we will see longer lengths of stay, less demanding residents, lower costs, and higher occupancy.

We have figured this out with dining to the point that it is so good that it may very well, in the school of unintended consequences, have raised expectations to the point of increasing dissatisfaction instead of reducing it.

(Here’s a little plug for the Senior Living Dining Association Annual Conference in April which is all about getting dining just right. You can check out the event HERE.)

This might be the single best investment senior living communities to make.

The Study

The study points out loneliness is an epidemic-sized problem for older people in and out of senior living:

  • It rivals smoking and obesity in its impact on shortening longevity
  • It increases healthcare and caregiver expenses

The study is very limited, it is being done at a single senior living community in the San Diego area and the broader study includes just over 100 residents, who apparently are all in senior living. This particular part of the study includes just 30 residents.

While the name of the community is not disclosed, and I don’t know which community it is (though I have some guesses), it sounds like it is a Life Plan Community, which at least suggests the study population may not be very representative of the general senior living population.

Yet the findings likely have at least some broad application. The residents studied ranged in age from 67 to 92 with a mean of 81.6. 67% were female and 90% Caucasian. Most had at least some college. On the loneliness scale (the details are in the study):

  • 15% were not lonely or rated low 
  • 63% had moderate levels of loneliness
  • 22% scored high on the loneliness scale

What It Might Mean

The study suggests loneliness is an area that is ripe for additional research. For instance, the industry should fund a study that would look at loneliness in residents living at home compared to various levels and types of senior living. But some themes emerged from this study that suggests opportunities for improvement in decreasing loneliness in senior living:

  • Helping residents accept the physical (and mental changes) that accompany aging
  • Creating opportunities for residents to learn from others how to find happiness and meaning in spite of losses
  • Creating an environment where residents can learn better social skills
  • Teaching residents how to manage their grief and loneliness (this is something we could also do for staff) 
  • Creating ongoing opportunities for residents to engage in purposeful activities
  • Being more deliberate about helping residents establish new friendships

I would love to hear your stories about how you are working on the loneliness challenge in your community. If you have a story for us, we would love to tell it.