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How can we relieve loneliness in aging Australians?

24 Apr 19

How can we do better to reverse the unsettling trend of loneliness gripping elderly Australians, asks Community Sector Banking CEO Andrew Cairns.

To some, the thought of retirement is an exciting prospect. It’s a long-awaited and hard-earned chapter that many look forward to. Sadly, the reality isn’t always so rosy. Studies show that an increasing number of older Australians are feeling lonely and isolated.

What’s important about loneliness is that it’s not just a feeling. It’s a significant public health and social policy problem.

A study at Swinburne University showed that loneliness can increase the chances of early death by a staggering 26 per cent. Many believe loneliness should be treated as a public health crisis with peak medical experts now calling for the Australian government to follow in the footsteps of the UK government and create a minister for loneliness.

Loneliness can be a product of losing a life partner and having to create a new reality and make new connections much later in life. It can descend after retirement and facing the challenge of how to fill the day with non-work-related activities or routines. Loneliness can come about after the loss of independence after losing a driver’s license or moving to an assisted living facility. Many believe social media and technology is creating less personal and physical interaction which can have a real impact on our sense of connectedness as we age.

And connectedness is at the centre of loneliness. Studies have shown that the more connected we are, the longer and healthier our lives will be. So how can we do better as a country, as communities and as families to reverse the unsettling trend of loneliness gripping elderly Australians?

Aging men have some of the highest rates of loneliness across Australia. In many cases and many marriages, the wife is the link to social engagements, whether they be family gatherings or community functions. It’s these gatherings that, for some elderly people, provide their connectedness to community. But if the more social partner dies, it can be a difficult and uneasy role for the newly-widowed partner to play.

The Men’s Sheds movement has steadily grown to serve a part of the aging community. According to the Australian Men’s Shed Association there are nearly 1,000 Men’s Sheds across the country. These sheds provide a casual community of men who use their skills to tinker, fix and repurpose things for their community. It’s an easy place to socialise and it provides men with a place to go for good company.

Another way to combat loneliness is to encourage mentorship among our retiring colleagues to share their priceless knowledge based on years of experience in the workforce. By connecting older retired colleagues to younger ones, it can give them an opportunity to teach what they know and provide a sense of purpose. There is something incredibly rewarding in passing the torch of learned knowledge through lived experience.

All families at one time or another will deal with the question of becoming a caregiver themselves for their aging parent or spouse. We have a long way to go in supporting families who play critical caregiving roles including bringing an elderly parent to live in our homes. The time costs and monetary costs associated with caring for an elderly parent or spouse cannot be underestimated.

For many of us we are not able to bring an aging family member into our homes to live, so we depend on carers or assisted caring facilities. Sadly, there are well-documented cases of elder abuse rampant in assisted care facilities and among carers which sparked the decision to conduct a royal commission into aged care.

Professor Edward Strivens, president of the Australian and New Zealand Society for Geriatric Medicine, said that 50 per cent of older Australians in residential care suffered from depression and anxiety, compared with about 10 per cent of older Australians not in residential care. Isolation and loneliness are a by-product of aged care and it shouldn’t be that way.

Research has shown a sharp decline in the number of registered nurses in aged care – from 21 per cent in 2003 to just 14.9 per cent currently. The lack of skilled nurses as carers is worrisome as is the lack of regulation around the education and training to become a carer. We wouldn’t lower the standards of caregiving for our children, so why would we lower them for our aging parents?

The royal commission into aged care has a monumental task of listening to families who have experienced trauma while in aged care and, from those stories, working on recommendations and policy to fix our broken system. As a collective community, we must ensure our aging loved ones can live with dignity and age with dignity in their final years.

This article was originally published in Pro Bono Australia.

 

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