With the festive season upon us, it’s time to make loneliness and social isolation among ageing Australians a public health priority, writes Kerry Mann.
Christmas and the holiday season are traditionally a time when friends and family gather to celebrate and spend time together.
Sadly for many, particularly senior Australians, this time of year can be a lonely, isolating experience. So how can we ensure our ageing Australians feel included and cared for?
Those without strong social networks find themselves feeling even more disconnected, even more alone as the festive period nears. Unfortunately, loneliness affects a disproportionate number of senior Australians and the issue has become much more than an unfortunate situation – it is a serious health issue, and one which should be a public health priority.
While social isolation refers to having minimal contact with others, whether through limited opportunity, lack of existing networks, reduced ability to communicate or a lack of awareness of relevant resources, loneliness is the negative feeling often associated with social isolation, whether genuine or perceived.
Social isolation leads to higher use of health and social services, as well as earlier admission to residential aged care.
Research conducted by Dr Andrew Steptoe, of London’s University College in 2013 found, “socially isolated people were 26 per cent more likely to die than people who had some form of meaningful social engagement”.
Social isolation linked to poor well-being, chronic disease
Similarly, the World Health Organisation has espoused the belief that social isolation and exclusion are associated with “increased rates of premature death, lower general well-being, more depression, and a higher level of disability from chronic diseases”.
While social isolation and loneliness are not exclusively problems for our ageing population, they are certainly acutely felt by the elderly, many of whom feel a genuine sense of loss at the disintegration of their social lives and decreasing interaction with busy family and remaining friends – whether caused by being widowed, dealing with dementia or an ill partner, personal poor health, immobility, having to relocate from their family home and community or poor technological skills which make it harder to establish new friendships and maintain contact with younger generations.
And looking at the numbers, the issue is only going to increase over time. With over-55s in Australia set to top 7.2 million by 2020 , with 5.5 million falling into the over-85 category by 2101, maximising the health and well-being of our seniors is a public health imperative which requires going way beyond well intentioned home-delivery meals and adding hospital beds.
Simple maths reveals that if just ten per cent of those people feel disconnected, that translates to 720,000 Australians living with feelings of isolation. And with loneliness having far-reaching consequences in terms of depression, mobility and the successful treatment of chronic disease, the situation is already putting pressure on health and social services in this country and others.There’s plenty of scientific evidence to suggest a lack of social connection is in the same category of health-related risk factor as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise. In the UK, researchers have linked loneliness to conditions including cardiovascular disease, dementia, poor sleep and depression.
However simply feeling sorry for those who are suffering doesn’t help.
A multidisciplinary approach
We need a carefully considered, multi-disciplinary approach, recognising that individuals’ experiences of loneliness and social isolation are unique. Finding fresh ways for senior Australians to engage in society, to remain active, and, where possible, to retain a degree of independence is a good place to start to improve the quality of the ageing experience.
Obviously not all lonely seniors are looking to move into retirement residences or aged care accommodation just yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help them feel connected and cared for.
With many Australians keen to continue living independently at home, our industry must continue to be innovative, and provide personalised in-home services which extend beyond the traditional services to encompass companionship – all intended to make staying at home simpler, safer, more sustainable – and less isolating.
Whether our ageing population opt to continue living at home, to join a retirement living community or, when necessary, to live in an aged care residence, addressing their social health and minimising loneliness throughout the continuum of care should be a primary public health priority – not just for policymakers and those in the industry, but for all of us.
Nobody wants to grow old alone, nor should they have to.
Kerry Mann is the CEO of Cranbrook Care.
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