By Stephen Easton
Loneliness is a serious problem for a third of Australians, and older people are among the groups where it is most prevalent, according to sociologists Professor Adrian Franklin and Associate Professor Bruce Tranter, who have just completed an essay on housing, loneliness and health for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI).
A large body of research has shown that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to relationships, but changes to society have made strong bonds with employers, neighbours, friends, family and lovers hard to come by in this day and age.
It has also been known for quite some time that loneliness is a big problem among older people in the community, and the authors argue that very few systematic ways have been found to effectively reduce it.
“It’s not enough just to connect older people with each other in old people’s homes; we have to provide them with relationships that matter,” Professor Franklin said. “Just putting people together is not creating bonds. It is creating connections and social events, and they may lead to lasting social bonds, but they are not social bonds in themselves, and that confusion is only just being realised at the moment.”
The researchers also investigated just how bad loneliness is for your health, and found that people for whom loneliness was a serious problem (29 per cent of women and 35 per cent of men) also reported their health was twice as bad as those who said they were not lonely.
The essay refers to other studies that have directly linked loneliness to a large range of health problems, many of which occur in later life, including Alzheimer‘s disease, obesity, elevated blood pressure, sleep disorders, diminished immunity, depression and heart attacks to name just a few.
Links have also been drawn between loneliness and mortality in older adults generally as well as reduced independence, and one study showed that lonely elderly people are twice as likely to move into nursing homes as those who are not.
All of these factors mean loneliness will become a bigger social problem in Australia over the next few decades as the population ages.
Professor Franklin said one of the best ways to reduce feelings of loneliness for aged care residents was to allow pets, or perhaps have shared pets, and noted research from 2009 showing that few Australian retirement villages accommodate companion animals, even though this is a major reason many older Australians don’t want to move into them.
“Relationships with these companion animals are unlike human relationships,” he said. “With animals like cats and dogs, or even cockatiels, they are until death do us part, whereas relationships with other humans these days are until further notice.
“If you think about how much that kind of solution would cost, it’s not much, and you can put into existing architecture.”
In the essay the researchers draw attention to the 2008 Australian Research Council-funded study Alone in a crowd: Supporting older Australians managing loneliness, which offers a wide range of recommendations to combat the problem, specifically among the elderly.