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4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 1999  
Previous ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/06/1999   
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Contents >> Family >> Family Functioning: Spending time alone

Family Functioning: Spending Time Alone

In 1997, 32% of older people aged 65 years and over lived alone. During their waking hours, these people spent an average of 79% of their time alone (12 hours and 26 minutes per day).

Interaction with others is generally seen as a positive and necessary part of daily life. Naturally, the level of social interaction a person has can depend on a wide range of factors, such as where they live, whether they work, their health, and their personal preferences and aptitude for social interaction.

In terms of broad social trends, various changes in patterns of human activity suggest that people are generally interacting with a wider range of people than in the past. For instance, the increased participation of women in the labour force is likely to have increased the time women of prime working age spend with people outside their home. High and increasing rates of residential mobility would also have served to broaden social contacts. Between 1991 and 1996, 43% of people changed their address within Australia, up from 41% between 1986 and 1991.1 More widely available telecommunication services, such as cellular phones and the internet, are also likely to have assisted in this process of change.

At the same time, there is evidence that some social bonds are weakening. Over recent decades, divorce rates have risen and increasing numbers of adults live as single parents or by themselves (see Australian Social Trends 1999 Family - National summary table). As well as increases in the proportion of people of all ages who live alone, the amount of time people spend by themselves has been increasing. Overall, the average waking time per day spent alone among people aged 15 years and over increased from 2 hrs: 38 minutes in 1992 to 3 hours: 1 minutes in 1997, an increase of 23 minutes. The increases have been largest for people who live alone, and more so for men than women.

Taken together, these trends could imply increased loneliness and social isolation. Within the context of these broader trends, this review identifies those groups who may be at risk of having low levels of social interaction, mostly measured in terms of the time spent alone.


Measuring time spent alone

This review uses data from the Time Use surveys conducted by the ABS in 1997 and 1992. The data was compiled from a household questionnaire and a 48-hour diary of time use, filled out by respondents aged 15 years and over. In addition to changes in behaviour, some of the differences in figures between 1992 and 1997 may be due to minor differences in survey methodology.

Time spent alone per day is measured as the time individuals were alone while they had an opportunity for social interaction: that is, while they were awake. If sleeping time had been included in the measure of total time spent alone, the difference in time spent alone between persons living alone and those living with others would have been substantially higher due to lone people generally sleeping alone.

Time use data on social contact (time spent with other people) cannot give an indication of the degree and quality of interaction that takes place between people. Individuals may be in the company of others, but have little more than superficial interaction with them. However, it is likely that being in the company of others will reduce the extent to which people feel lonely or socially isolated.

AVERAGE WAKING TIME SPENT ALONE AND PROPORTIONS OF PEOPLE LIVING ALONE, 1997, INCLUDING CHANGES SINCE 1992

Average time spent alone

Persons living with others
Persons living alone
Proportion who lived alone



Males
Females
Males
Females
Males
Females
Age group (years)
hrs: mins
hrs:mins
hrs:mins
hrs:mins
%
%

15-24
1:54
1:40
7:39
6:34
3.4
3.2
25-44
2:26
1:43
8:23
7:34
10.5
5.8
45-64
2:41
2:28
10:24
9:35
11.5
12.9
65 and over
1:40
1:37
13:00
12:12
20.3
40.4
Change since 1992
Percentage point change


Age group (years)
hrs:mins
hrs:mins
hrs:mins
hrs:mins
%
%

15-24
+0:16
+0:14
* *
* *
* *
* *
25-44
+0:07
+0:03
+1:41
+0:58
+3.4
+1.2
45-64
+0:20
+0:03
+0:17
-0:11
+3.7
+3.7
65 and over
+0:14
-0:02
+0:46
+0:42
+1.9
+1.1

Source: Unpublished data, Time Use Survey, 1992 and 1997.


Who spends the most time alone?
Because of the opportunities to interact with other people at home, people who live with others generally spend less time by themselves than those who live alone. On average, in 1997, people who lived with others spent just over 2 hours per day (14% of their waking time) by themselves compared to just over 10 hours (65% of their waking time) for people who lived alone.

Among those who lived with others, the amount of time spent alone varied little with the age of the person (roughly between one and a half and two and a half hours) with those aged 15-24 and 65 and over spending less time alone than those between these two age groups. However, among those who lived by themselves, the amount of time spent alone increased steadily with age. Among men aged 65 and over who lived by themselves, the average time spent alone per day was 13 hours (83% of their waking time) and among women who lived alone, 12 hrs: 12 mins per day (78% of their waking time). The likelihood of spending large amounts of time alone also increases with age in association with the increased chance of living alone. Among people aged 65 and over 20% of men and 40% of women lived by themselves.

People with moderate or more severe disabilities (most commonly older people) are at greater risk of social isolation than other people. Among those aged 65 and over who lived alone, the average time spent alone was 13 hrs: 31 mins, 85% of their waking hours, and over one hour longer than for the general population in this age group.


Measuring disability status

Disability is defined as the presence of one or more impairments or restrictions (whether physical, sensory, psychological or intellectual) which has lasted, or is expected to last, for six months or more.

In the Time Use Survey, disability status was further defined according to the degree of restriction the disability causes to personal activity. The group identified in this review includes people with a severe or profound restriction in personal activity (i.e. people who required personal assistance with personal care, mobility and communication tasks), and people with a moderate restriction (i.e. people who required various aids, but not necessarily the assistance of others, with tasks).

AVERAGE WAKING TIME, SPENT ALONE AND WITH OTHERS AND INCIDENCE OF HAVING SPARE TIME, 1997

Persons living with others
Persons living alone


Age group
Spent alone
Spent with household members only
Spent with non- household members(a)
Always or often has spare time
Total living with others
Spent alone
Spent with
non- household members
Always or often has spare time
Total living alone
(years)
hrs:mins
hrs:mins
hrs:mins
%
'000
hrs:mins
hrs:mins
%
'000

All persons
15-24
1:47
6:24
6:24
11.6
2,509.4
7:07
8:05
12.8*
85.4
25-44
2:04
8:35
4:56
3.5
5,138.4
8:05
7:25
9.1
453.9
45-64
2:35
8:52
4:14
3.4
3,504.2
9:58
5:47
7.9
488.0
65 and over
1:38
11:49
1:46
5.1
1,282.2
12:26
3:17
11.7
591.9
Persons with a disability(b)
15-44
2:05
9:02
4:08
10.7*
286.8
10:28*
4:48*
* *
25.0*
45-64
2:16
10:18
2:56
11.6*
267.7
9:56
5:09
14.7*
66.7
65 and over
1:49
11:20
1:40
16.8*
185.7
13:31
2:25
21.4*
102.1
Total population
2:07
8:33
4:42

5.3
12,434.2
10:12

5:27
9.9
1,619.2

(a) Household members may also be present.
(b) Persons with a severe, profound or moderate restriction in personal activity.

Source: Unpublished data, Time Use Survey, 1997


Further identifying groups of concern
Spending time alone, even for those who spend large amounts of time alone, is not itself an indicator of diminished life quality in terms of feelings of loneliness or social isolation.2 The simple expectation of having families and friends available to meet with on occasions or rely on when needed may well diminish potential feelings of loneliness. However, a likely symptom of loneliness is the feeling of inactivity or boredom.2,3 One measure of such feelings available from the Time Use Survey is the extent to which people report that they always or often have spare time. The use of this measure in conjunction with time spent alone may be an indicator of the numbers of people who suffer from being alone.

Despite being at least risk of social isolation in terms of time spent alone, young people aged 15-24 were the most likely of all age groups to report that they always or often have spare time, regardless of whether they lived alone or not (13% and 12% respectively). This finding is consistent with other research which has identified youth, along with elderly people, to be most at risk of having feelings of loneliness.3,4

Nevertheless, after the formative years of adulthood, feelings of loneliness (or as shown here, feelings of always or often having spare time) are less common, but increase with age and are higher among older people who live alone, particularly those with disabilities. In 1997, of people aged 65 and over identified as having a moderate or more severe disability, 21% of those living alone and 17% of those living with others felt that they always or often had spare time. These proportions were substantially higher than for the general population in this age group (12% and 5% respectively).


Social isolation

Although definitions vary, social isolation is generally understood to occur when a person has low levels of social participation and a perceived inadequacy of social activity.2 This can happen when a person spends a lot of time alone and little time in social contact with family, friends and other people. Social isolation is associated with feelings of loneliness, boredom and lower satisfaction with life.

Addressing concerns

The Department of Veterans' Affairs has identified social isolation as a priority concern for the veteran community, and the wider community in general.2 It has responded to concerns by establishing the Improving Social Networks Program, including pilot interventions and organising related research. It recognises that as people age, they are more likely to experience social isolation as a result of frailty, mobility problems, and loss of family and friends. To address this problem, the Department completed an extensive research project on the causes and effects of social isolation in the veteran community in 1998. It found that social isolation is a substantial problem and is mainly triggered by a lack of social support, poor health and restricted mobility.2


Spending time with others
Whether people live alone or with family members, there is a general desire to spend some of their time with others. Irrespective of living arrangements, the proportion of time spent with people outside the household generally decreased with age. People aged 15-24 who live with others tend to spend more time with non-household members than any other age group (an average of 6 hrs:24 mins a day). Of those living with others, people aged 25-44 (most commonly families with young children, and in which high proportions of men and women are employed) spent less time with non-household members (4 hrs:56 mins per day) than those in the 15-24 year age group. Interaction with others drops off markedly among older age groups when most people have retired from work.

Among people aged 65 and over, those who live by themselves tend to spend more time with friends, acquaintances and other people than those who live with others (3 hrs:17 mins and 1 hr:46 mins respectively). However, those who live with others spend a great deal of their time (on average, 78% of their waking time) with other household members, commonly their husband or wife.

PEOPLE AGED 65-74 YEARS AND 75 YEARS AND OVER: AVERAGE TIME SPENT, WHILE AWAKE, IN DIFFERENT SOCIAL CONTEXTS, 1997

Persons living with partner only
Persons living alone


65-74 years
75 years and over
65-74 years
75 years and over
Social context
hrs:mins
hrs:mins
hrs:mins
hrs:mins

Alone
1:29
1:20
12:32
12:18
Partner only
11:13
12:05
n.a.
n.a.
Family outside household only
0:51
0:31
1:11
1:33
Family and friends(a)
1:03
0:45
0:11*
0:13*
Friends only
0:28
0:26
1:22
1:11
Other people only(b)
0:16
0:10
0:27
0:28

Total persons ('000)
674.8
280.7
333.9
258.0

(a) Administrative, service and shop personnel, crowd or undescribed people may also be present.
(b) Administrative, service and shop personnel, crowd or undescribed people present

Source: Unpublished data, Time Use Survey, 1997.


Social interaction: focusing more on older people
Patterns of social interaction with family and friends change among older people with increasing age. Slightly less time is spent alone among those aged 75 and over than those aged 65-74, irrespective of living arrangements.

For people aged 65 and over, living with their partner, an increasing amount of time is spent with their partner only as they grow older (11 hrs:13 mins per day for those aged 65-74 and 12 hrs:5 mins per day for those aged over 75 years). Among those who live alone, on the other hand, more time is spent with family members who live in other households (relatives, children and grandchildren). On average, people aged over 75 years who lived alone spent over one hour longer per day with family members outside of the household than those in the same age group who live with their partner (1 hr:33 mins, and 31 minutes per day, respectively).

These patterns of social interaction indicate that with advancing age the loss of partners impacts heavily on the amount of time older people spend alone. They also indicate that families living in other households spend more of their time with elderly people when these people are at greater risk of social isolation.


Endnotes

1 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1996, Population Growth and Distribution (cat. no. 2035.0), ABS, Canberra.

2 Commonwealth Department of Veterans' Affairs 1998, Improving Social Networks: Improving Health and Social Isolation in the Australian Veteran Community, DVA, Canberra.

3 Weeks, D.J. 1994, A Review of Loneliness Concepts, with Particular Reference to Old Age, International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, vol 9, 1994.

4 Wildermuth N.L. 1990, Loneliness in adolescence: why it occurs and what to do about it in Adolescence an Australian Perspective, Callan Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Sydney, 1990.


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