Combatting loneliness in elderly will lead to more fulfilling life: Expert

Loneliness and social isolation are prevalent among the elderly, but an expert says there's plenty of ways to combat it. Source: Getty

John Geary is 89-years-old and receives aged care services from Your Side. A few years ago, his wife, whom he had cared for for some time, passed away.

Despite a difficult period of adjustment and isolation John has since changed his outlook and in turn, the course of his life. He now finds solace in the regular company of men and women on aged care programs, in regular meet-and-greets and luncheons arranged by Your Side.

He speaks fondly of the blue and pink days on Tuesdays and Thursdays; the beauty of “just having something to look forward to”. In his own words, the opportunity to meet folk and banter over a meal is “simply wonderful”. He says without it; he’d be stuck in his cottage with his eyes glued to the television. Now he has a reason to seize the day and venture out into the world, and not even the wet weather can stop him.

Despite his age, John speaks about his experiences with a zest for life, and level-headed clarity. He believes his social enthusiasm has added not just years, but priceless quality to his life. He doesn’t doubt it provides much the same benefit for his elderly companions, many of whom have shared similar struggles and stories.

As aged care providers, we have the privilege of providing services, care, and companionship for older Australians on a daily basis. We recognise that the connection we form with, and for, older Australians is as critical to their wellbeing as the conventional services we offer through the aged care model.

This is why we’re advocating a reboot of the home care system which places the experience of ageing Australians front and centre of our thinking. Every policy, and every decision we make, should reflect this principle.

New research has revealed that strong social networks resulted in better longevity and quality of life for ageing Australians. The study, conducted by Macquarie University, considered metrics like quality of life, wellbeing, and community participation.

In the context of aged care services, the report found that the older Australians receiving stronger social support services were more likely to stay at home where they preferred to be, rather than prematurely falling into a residential facility, or worse.

While there are an increasing number of Australians living alone — 2.1 million (or 23 per cent) of the population — the greatest proportion of these is older Australians. For those in the 75 to 85-year-old bracket, the number rises to 30 per cent, and for those over 85, it’s even higher at 32 per cent.

While there are various reasons for the increasing social isolation of older Australians, we know that simply staying in touch and encouraging social connection will probably allow them stay at home longer, enabling them to live the life they want to live.

It’s why, as aged care providers, we have broadened our professional vision to encompass not just the clinical and medical side for people, but also the social side. A lot of the time connection with family, friends and community is what’s most important for older Australians and that should come as no surprise to anybody; young or old.

While it’s true the system does need a big change, the good news is that within the industry, aged care providers recognise the power of regular social connection and we’re aiming to spearhead a change in perception within society too.

For our sector, social support is not just nice to have — it’s a core strategy designed to delay entry into residential care. While the issue of loneliness for older Australians is multi-faceted and complex, the way we contribute doesn’t need to be.

Governments need to support social programs with funding and campaigns that raise awareness. Informal carers and loved ones need to do our part to maintain contact and open conversations and older Australians need to put aside their pride and reach out for help if they need it.

It’s not just important to support older Australians when they need help, but to encourage them to seek it. At Your Side, we have witnessed too many Australians waiting far too long to enter the aged care system and this why we want to de-stigmatise the prospect of receiving care. There should be no shame in asking for the help that will prolong the length and quality of your life.

It’s important for older Australians to reach out and seek help before they even realise they need it. People like John Geary should not be the exception, they should be the rule. What we’ve discovered after years in the aged care sector is that your later years can be the most enriching and rewarding and exciting of your lifetime, but not if you live them alone.

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