LGB individuals are less likely to have a partner and more likely to be lonely as older adults, compared to heterosexuals
A nationally representative study of older American adults found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) individuals were lonelier than their heterosexual counterparts, and this effect was partly explained by challenges with social relationships. The findings were published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
Loneliness is especially common in older adults, but little research has considered how the risk for adult loneliness might differ according to a person’s sexual orientation. Evidence suggests that members of sexual minorities often experience troubled social relationships and may be especially at risk for experiencing loneliness as older adults.
Study authors Ning Hsieh and Hui Liu, therefore, conducted a study to explore whether older LGB individuals experience more loneliness than their heterosexual counterparts and whether the quality and quantity of their social relationships can explain this effect.
Researchers analyzed data from the third wave of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, a nationally representative study of older Americans. The final sample consisted of 3,567 adults between the ages of 50 and 97.
The survey asked respondents to indicate their sexual orientation and whether or not they were currently married or cohabitating with a partner. The questionnaire also included a measure of loneliness and a series of items assessing the quality and quantity of their relationships with their spouse/partner, family, friends, and community.
Results showed that LGB respondents were more lonely and less likely to be married or cohabitating than their heterosexual respondents. Further, they reported having a smaller number of close family members, less support from their families, less community participation, and more strain in their friendships.
Importantly, while LGB respondents were less likely to have a partner than heterosexuals, those who were in relationships experienced similar levels of support and strain in their partnerships as heterosexuals. This finding was in line with previous studies that have suggested that the quality of same-sex relationships is equal to or better than the quality of heterosexual partnerships.
Further analysis found that marital status explained 37% of the increased loneliness in LGB individuals compared to heterosexual individuals. This suggests that the decreased likelihood of having a partner played a crucial role in fostering loneliness in LGB individuals.
“Having a spouse/partner, especially in the context of a legally protected and culturally
accepted relationship, has long been identified as a key mechanism for both cultivating a sense of belonging and meaning and expanding social connections (e.g., families-in-law, a spouse’s friendship networks). The higher prevalence of being single among older LGB adults is a major risk factor for loneliness,” the authors say.
Further, family support and family strain explained 28%, and friendship explained 17%, of the heightened loneliness among LGB participants.
The study was limited by a small sample size of LGB respondents, which did not allow researchers to distinguish between different sexual minority identities. Further research should recruit a larger sample of LGB individuals in order to explore a greater diversity of sexual identities.
The authors conclude, “this study demonstrates that continued efforts to strengthen the partnerships and family relationships of sexual minorities (for example, by fully destigmatizing minority identities through education and public policy) are essential to eliminating the loneliness gap by sexual orientation.”
The study, “Social Relationships and Loneliness in Late Adulthood: Disparities by Sexual Orientation”, was authored by Ning Hsieh and Hui Liu.