- Brought to you in association with the Arts Health Institute
At a time in Australia when there are staggeringly high rates of loneliness in seniors in both residential and community care, we need to pay attention to what we mean by care and refocus our attention on the experience of living as we age, writes Dr Maggie Haertsch.
Welcome to our new monthly series in Australian Ageing Agenda exploring problems and issues faced by elders in aged care, and some new, innovative thinking that is addressing these problems creatively.
The old adage ‘growing old is not for the faint-hearted’ is true not just for the aches and pains we feel, and declining abilities we endure, but for the loneliness we may increasingly suffer as loved ones depart and social connections disappear.
Even in community and aged care facilities, individuals can experience acute loneliness. It is a sad fact one in ten people over the age of 65 can experience loneliness most of the time and over the age of 80 this increases to one in two people and most rely on television for social connection. The UK has established a Campaign to End Loneliness in a response to curb the problem.
At a time in Australia when there are staggeringly high rates of loneliness in the elderly both residential aged care services and in community care, we need to pay attention to what we mean by care and refocus our attention on the experience of living as we age.
Loneliness is a serious health issue.
Research has shown that loneliness is a precursor for depression and is a risk factor for a number of other psychological, and indeed, physical health conditions. These include high blood pressure, increased hormonal and inflammatory responses, diminished immunity, impaired sleep, alcoholism, obesity, earlier mortality, increased progression of dementia and earlier nursing home admission.
So how do we address this problem? How can we help our elders reconnect and start enjoying again the things they did as a younger person. Like music and dance, singing and laughing, performing or enjoying a joke? Why not encourage learning a new skill? In short, having fun! The arts play an important role in creating connections between people and can take a person out of themselves, it is a way to think and express feelings and emotions.
In November 2014, Sydney’s Luna Park welcomed some of the world’s most innovative minds to explore the importance of creativity in aged care. We easily think that creativity is confined to the arts and those who are ‘artistic’ but creativity is essential in every aspect of life. Being creative is a way to solving a problem.
To be creative is to come up with an idea that can be applied in reality. Thinking creatively is considered to be good for business and a necessary aspect of innovation. Businesses like Google are well known for their workplaces that enable creativity. So what is creativity exactly and what do we need to help us think creatively so we can solve problems and be more innovative?
From our experience of bringing artists into aged care services we have observed thriving high functioning services display the following three attributes: leadership with a willingness to try something new and allowing the time to do it; collaboration where the team delivering on their promise is what matters most; and, imagination that holds the idea of new ways of working. A playfulness and curiosity is modelled in every level of management. Taking examples from creative and agile businesses can provide a new reference point to business models in the aged care sector.
It is not enough however to simply put people together in the same house, residential setting, day care room, or communal dining room, what is important is how we connect people with each other. Aged care services play an important role in connecting older people and creating opportunities that foster greater meaningful engagement. The connection within the aged care team is likely to mirror the strength of connection with and amongst elders.
Try starting a conversation in your aged care service by asking elders three simple things:
- What did you like to do with friends?
- What do you like to do to have fun?
- If you would like to do anything now, what would that be?
With that information design experiences that are goal orientated, look at the hidden talents of your team and consider ways to build friendship groups based on shared interests such as reading groups, singing and art making. Design everyday strategies to incorporate being more creative with those in your service and within your team.
Suddenly, you discover new and meaningful insights that you can build upon for more conversations. Elders will feel more connected, more heard and most importantly, more valued as a person. And that means less loneliness.
Dr Maggie Haertsch is executive director and CEO of the Arts Health Institute, a non-profit organisation working to improve lives through the integration of the arts into all aspects of health and age care environments.
Australian Ageing Agenda is media partner of the AHI.