A Sydney council is looking outside the box in the way it provides community services to older people and those with disability to target a broader spectrum of wellbeing needs, including reducing loneliness and isolation.
Maree Burke, Business Co-ordinator of the City of Parramatta Council’s Community Care department, says research shows that loneliness can have devastating effects on health and wellbeing.
Ms Burke outlined ways in which City of Parramatta – an approved provider of home care and NDIS services – is attempting to deliver a better quality of life for recipients, at a stakeholder gathering in Sydney last Wednesday.
The toll of loneliness
Human beings are a social species who do best in families, groups and tribes, she told the Quality in Aged Care conference, and loneliness is a biological warning system hardwired into the human brain that prompts us to seek the social connections we need to thrive.
Adopting a person-centered approach and using a wellness model is central to targeting and reducing loneliness, she told the conference.
Ms Burke says research indicates that loneliness changes brain chemistry, causing symptoms of irritability, depression and self-centredness.
“There’s a reason you get cranky old men,” Ms Burke says. “That cranky old man is lonely”.
A third of people in the industrial world are estimated to suffer from loneliness, and about one in 12 are seriously affected.
In Australia, the Swinbourne University of Technology Loneliness Report released last year found one in four people feel lonely and 30 per cent feel they don’t belong to a circle of friends.
While social isolation is quantifiable, loneliness is much more difficult to gauge. But both increase the risk of an early death, Ms Burke said.
Research suggests loneliness increases the risk of death by 45 per cent, the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is also associated with drug and alcohol dependency and abuse.
Innovate approaches to staple services
City of Parramatta Food Services Co-ordinator Renea Jones says council has been providing innovative programs where clients are matched with a volunteer to share a meal, either in their home or by visiting a partner restaurant.
The Social Lunch and Let’s Dine out Programs, which use meal preparation and delivery funds, turn a simple service like meal provision into a social opportunity where the client can connect and engage with another person.
“This is an example of taking a typical service which doesn’t really improve loneliness and turning it a into real benefit for the individual,” Ms Jones said.
Even the lawn mowing service has been turned into an opportunity to empower clients by putting decision-making in their hands, structuring it so clients deal directly with external contractors.
This puts the people receiving support in control while fostering skills of interaction, negotiation and time management.
The approach also has benefits for council, Ms Jones says, removing the need for debt collection and requiring minimal administrative support apart from yearly procurement.
CHSP ‘not a one way ticket’
Ms Jones says providers need to ask whether their services reduce loneliness.
“You need to think outside the box,” she said. “For example, a staple of our social programs the bus trip. Who are we targeting? Are the people attending already socially connected and confident? Is a lonely person likely to attend? When we pack people onto a large bus are we actually engaging with them, or just filling seats?”
She says the bums-on-seats approach can be turned into a meaningful experience by creative thinking, such as having a cruise ship-style social director on board to engage participants and foster social connections.
“The right staff member or volunteer can make all the difference,” she said.
CHSP is an entry point to the larger age services industry, but that doesn’t mean it’s “a one-way ticket”, Ms Jones said.
Instead, it can be an opportunity to reskill and grow supports.
“It is not a given that once you step onto that funding train that you have to take a seat and move along until you reach the station called home care packages and the next stop, resident care,” she told the conference.
“If we are doing our jobs well at a CHSP level we can transition people and extend their time living their lives independently and with purpose.
“What we deliver matters and how we do it can make a difference.”
City of Parramatta Council also provides training for service managers and workers on person-centred and wellness models. Information is available here.
Another resource, Take another Look, the journey towards person centred wellness models, is available here.