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Creative ideas in ageing: the old loneliness problem


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.

Creatively ending loneliness

Creatively ending loneliness

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.



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10 Responses to Creative ideas in ageing: the old loneliness problem

  1. Jacki January 14, 2015 at 8:06 pm #

    One solution is for aged care services, both residential and community, to invest some money into employing qualified diversional therapists. Over time less aged care services have employed or sought to attract qualified (particularly those with a degree) professionals that specialise in facilitating people’s engagement in meaningful activities. Not only can a qualified diversional therapist support the clients individually but they can also support management and staff in maximising positive engagement of all stakeholders within the service which in turn creates a positive and happy environment for the client. How about as an industry we get back to some basics and look to the professionals who are trained and skilled in these areas – qualified diversional therapists.

  2. Vicki Batten January 18, 2015 at 10:24 am #

    After many years of working with the aged I am going to say this as I see it! I am qualified in social sciences and psychology but i never assume people’s happiness should be left to me. My organisation sends out over 400 staff a day in a carers role- the ones who make the difference are the ones prepared to play! It is often qualified diversionary therapists who stifle freedom of expression simply because they have a diversional program to get through.People who are ageing being offered standard ‘activities’. No matter how diverse these are (textured dominoes, scrabble, quoits, craft, reminiscence games ) these are based on ‘what people may have liked before). In reality I hate all of these things so why would I suddenly like them when I am 80!
    Fun is something different altogether. Fun is spontaneous laughter, surprise, exploration and joy and discovery- not something you are going to get from bingo!
    Reaching out and bringing someone back from months maybe years of introversion and receded thinking, awakening someone, does not come from offering them the opportunity to participate in some games- it is much more visceral than that – it is a spiritual experience. Strong emotions awaken us and these will only be engendered by strong stimuli – laughter, tears, shock, surprise, joy.

  3. Kris January 19, 2015 at 10:38 am #

    I can appreciate Jacki’s comments regarding trained DTs designing or targeting specialised activities that suit a resident’s needs, and I see a place for DTs in our aged care system. However, a university degree is not a pre-requisite to have some fun, have a conversation, sing along or engage positively with a resident. The Arts Health Institute has and continues to design fresh and creative new ways of engagement with residents that involve staff, families, friends and even communities – and they are trained and skilled professionals too! Their flexible approach coaches staff with different levels of confidence and abilities to make a difference and engage with the residents in their own creative way. It’s time to stop treating people in aged care as ‘a bunch of residents’ and more like a group of individuals in a community with differing social needs and interests. Their lives can be enriched when more staff and professionals engage with them as people at all times, not just during scheduled recreational activities… helping them live their life as full as possible.

  4. Julie Pool January 19, 2015 at 11:01 am #

    Absolutely! If only more aged care and diversional therapy staff could empathize and really understand that concept.

  5. Carol Phillips January 22, 2015 at 8:03 am #

    My mother has dementia and is in a home. I visit on a regular basis and I can see that change is needed. A guitar is played on a morning corridor walk and those few that join the walk down the corridor do so. The other day I grabbed my mum and started dancing and laughing. Another lady starting toe tapping and soon the small group had more people and then the cleaning staff joined and we all danced and sang – and most importantly smiled and laughed.
    All the ones that danced never walk more than a few paces before sitting down or walk without their walkers….and I had fun too!

  6. PRUE MILLER February 4, 2015 at 5:22 pm #

    I am so heartened to read comments about inspired, unscripted, free thinking fun. In my time in aged care, and in geriatric wards, surprise fun has been the most successful diversion.I think there would be more diversion if facilities allowed, in fact encouraged, NON professionals into the mix.
    In the trickiest situations when things are getting a bit wobbly emotionally, a song (no matter how dreadfully I may have performed it) has lightened the mood.
    Thank you Rogers and Hammerstein!
    I might add it lightened my load too 🙂

  7. Helen October 5, 2015 at 10:13 pm #

    “It’s time to stop treating people in aged care as ‘a bunch of residents’ and more like a group of individuals in a community with differing social needs and interests.”

    Although the hostel said that activities were optional my mother was treated badly when she did not want to attend singalongs, beauty parlous etc, which she found trivial and stupid.

    She was blind and had problems with mobility and some mild dementia but was well educated and would have enjoyed a lecture about history or science from U3A or something like that but nothing like that was on offer. Just more singalongs and happy hours.

  8. joycelene December 11, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

    I am a diversional therapist in an aged care facility and have worked in numerous aged care facilities as a nurse/DT. When I studied for my qualifications we were advised it was important to remember residents are all at different stages of cognitive states, some more cognitive and some have either poor eyesight, poor hearing, and at different stages of mobility, pain.

    I am one DT for 52 residents all of whom are at different stages in the ageing process, unfortunately they all come down to the Leisure Lounge five days a week for group activities. I find I have to adjust these activities to meet the mixed needs of the group to make them feel involved, acknowledged, to participate, to feel success, to offer a change of environment, both visually and cognitively. Sometimes the patience of some residents become annoyed, frustrated when other residents cannot participate like them. I am aware of this so during this time I have to mix it up so all can participate.

    For example, with word games, I jump between very simple exercises to more complex ones, having residents work in pairs for visual problems or body movements e.g. hands/eyes

    This works, but you have to know your residents abilities and their needs.

    Really, my groups should be separated into smaller groups, matching their disabilities to the activity they are able to achieve and more personal, fun group engaging with others similar to their own needs and requirements.

    This is the way it really should be but we cannot afford another DT and I only wish the government could see the need for more DTs in aged care to give a more personal approach and much more rewarding outcome for our residents. Small groups would work wonders if we had the manpower.

  9. Major Grewal November 7, 2017 at 9:50 pm #

    As I understand the ultimate aim of anybody in life is to be HAPPY.

    The ageing members of the society find it very challenging to be happy. Therefore it is a matter of great importance to pay attention to this necessity which is growing in magnitude everyday.

    What can we do in this direction has been dealt in this article. What I feel is to engage them in the specific activities of their interests n capabilities which they had acquired during their jobs.

    When we talk in the context of aging members of the society, we have to know their limitations i.e. Inherent hesitations, lack of communication skills, ego, I’d crisis etc. b’coz of their background n the status and comforts enjoyed by them earlier in life.

    Now when we want to put them into an activity It is important to know the interests , necessities n the capabilities of the group of people or even individuals whom we are wanting to engage into an activity.

    To give satisfaction n the purpose , give a class of students for teaching to a retired teacher, an outlet of job consultancy to an HR specialist, security consultancy to a Police or an Army man, Manpower consultancy, Trainers of healthcare n Elders-care consultancy and Education consultancy to an educationist are a few examples to put the thinking cap on.

    I am sure once they are fruitfully n usefully employed , they will succeed in throwing away the killer “Loneliness” n the Frustration of doing nothing .

    This is the only grand idea to give them the best gift of life “the ULTIMATE HAPPINESS”.

  10. Bruce Ramey May 24, 2018 at 12:55 pm #

    Every one of the replies has validity within their own perspective. Loneliness, isolation and loss are all about us, all. “It” all helps; busy hands, minds, bodies, but that’s no cure for feeling or even knowing you are alone.

    Our 95 year old Mum never played bingo until she went into residential care a year ago. She was a Sudoku, reader, puzzle wizard, tinkerer. She loves the competitive cut and thrust of bingo and of word games and cannot bare any family around who want to add to the fun.

    That’s a woman who worked all her life, has few medical issues and is now losing her mind. She sees zero benefit to hands up balloon games or hands off cooking classes.

    I expect my generation is going to turn residential care up on it’s head and give it a good shake. Goodie!

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