Older people who care for a loved one or have lost a partner are particularly vulnerable to social isolation, according to a study from Western Australia.

The report was based on a series of focus groups and interviews with seniors and the organisations that provide services to them.

It looked at the causes and effects of social disconnection, along with strategies for overcoming it.

Other common reasons for isolation listed by older people participating in the study included a lack of family support, poor transport services, the increasing costs of living and chronic illnesses.

The report’s lead author, Helen Ferrara from Murdoch University’s Centre for Social and Community Research, said isolation can lead to a number of subsequent problems for older people.

“The World Health Organisation actually talks about loneliness and social isolation as the main determinants for increasing disability and early death,” said Ms Ferrara.

“When a person is isolated, their problems tend to escalate and it can be like the domino effect.

“Of course, the opposite is true as well. If someone improves their social support, that enhances their health and longevity significantly.”

The report noted that among other problems, social isolation can lead to depression and it can increase older people’s vulnerability to exploitation.

It also found that older people are often reluctant to talk about their disconnection because of fear, embarrassment or a strong sense of independence.

A common statement from the participants was, “I don’t want to put you out”.

“The people from the older generations are used to being tough and they don’t like to talk about any needs they might have,” said Ms Ferrara. “They want to show that they are coping.

“When you think about it, they are the generations that have led the push for independence so it’s no real surprise that this is the case.”

To minimise the effects of social isolation, study recommends that governments and community organisations encourage the development of intergenerational and community building activities at a local level.

It also suggested that existing organisations and networks could provide more education on how to manage major life transitions.

And while it noted that some services for older people could be difficult to access, the study acknowledged the significant benefits of many existing programs

“There are a lot of good activities that people are taking advantage of at the moment,” said Ms Ferrara. “There just needs to be more information so that older people are more aware of them.”

Ms Ferrara added that groups initiated by older people, or with their input, are especially important.

“If they set up an activity that they like, it’s going to be something that other people with similar interests are likely to appreciate as well,” she said. 

“But you can’t assume that people are going to enjoy the stereotypical activities like bowls and bingo just because they reach a certain age.”

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