The Commonwealth-funded Community Visitors Scheme should be enhanced to fund regular home visits by a trained nurse, writes Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward.
As a single woman there are times when I think that it may be days before someone would realise I’m not where I am supposed to be, if something was to happen to me.
Since moving to Canberra there are also weekends when I do not talk to anyone, as I have no established social network.
Although I am busy at work and have very fulfilled days I am very aware of how your life can seem bubbling with people one moment, then isolated and lonely at others.
I am fortunate that I go to work every day keeping me connected to others and socially active – but this is not the case for everyone who lives by themselves, particularly those no longer in employment.
In a national survey conducted by Lifeline in 2016, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they often felt lonely and over 80 per cent said Australian society was increasingly becoming a lonelier place.
It is estimated that one in four older Australians live alone and that one in five older Australians are socially isolated.
Loneliness and social isolation are particularly prevalent amongst older Australians due to factors such as retirement, divorce or separation, death of a partner, smaller social networks, and children having moved away.
Shining a very bright light on the breadth of this problem, Minister for Aged Care Ken Wyatt has recently expressed his dismay that up to 40 per cent of aged care residents have no family members or friends who come to see them.
To begin to address this issue, the Federal Government has committed $46.1 million to the national Community Visitors Scheme. Through this scheme, volunteers provide companionship to older Australians through regular visits to those receiving Commonwealth-subsidised aged care services.
It is great to see this service spreading through aged care facilities and to people living in their own home.
What this program does not account for though are the health impacts of social isolation.
Health risks of social isolation have been compared in magnitude to those of smoking and obesity. Loneliness and social isolation affect both a person’s physical and mental health.
Having volunteers may reduce loneliness and social isolation, but they are not trained to identify at-risk patients who require medical intervention.
Aged care residents who are being supported through the volunteer program already receive regular care from health professionals, but people still living in their own home must proactively seek out health services.
While home visits by GPs are increasing in Australia, these require a lonely person to recognise they need help and to call for it. While this may occur for obvious physical health problems, such as a wound or infection, it is less likely they will reach out for issues such as cognitive decline.
Therefore, the Community Visitors Scheme should be enhanced to fund regular home visits by a trained nurse. Nurses are trained to identify conditions including depression, dementia, anxiety, weight loss or gain, and substance abuse – all potential health issues associated with social isolation.
Knowing how people’s circumstances can differ as they get older to what they had planned, I am convinced we need to come together as a community to tackle the growing scourge of social isolation.
Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward is CEO of the Australian College of Nursing.
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