There are more productive things we can do to combat loneliness in the elderly than appoint a minister for the job – further stigmatising the issue. Professor Merryn Gott writes.

In January of this year the UK government appointed a Minister for Loneliness who was given the job of stemming the rising tide of social isolation and loneliness. They are right to take this issue seriously. We now know that loneliness can be as damaging to health as obesity or smoking.  

However, their choice of name is perhaps questionable. Our current research, funded by the National Science Challenge ‘Ageing Well’, confirms the stigma of identifying as a ‘lonely person’. Many people are embarrassed to find themselves isolated. They often feel it is either their fault or a reflection of their family or whānau’s unwillingness, or inability, to care enough for them.

Such stigma and shame is a significant barrier to seeking help, which is of deep concern when recent research in New Zealand reported that one in five frail older people experienced loneliness.

Changing public attitudes to loneliness is one strategy we could usefully think of closer to home, where there is growing awareness of the extent, and impact, of loneliness. While all age groups are affected, older people face particular challenges in remaining socially connected due to such issues as ill health that decreases their mobility; the death of friends; busy or absent family members and having to give up driving.

Our work is highlighting the profound impact of this experience. One older person we talked to compared loneliness to being ‘in the dark place’ while another thought about dying because she was on her own: “What’s it all been about?” she said. Many spent days by themselves without seeing another person, with one man acknowledging that “you ponder too much on your own mind,” which contributes to depression. Several cried when recounting their experiences.

Yet despite the sadness felt by many, all demonstrated considerable resilience as they discussed the many ways they worked to remain socially connected. With his son’s help, one octogenarian used Facebook and Skype to stay in touch with distant family members. Another woman in our study found telephone calls had replaced in-person visits as she and her friends could no longer drive. 

So what can we do about getting older people re-engaged and re-established as valued members of our communities? Well the jury is out, but it is clear we all have a role to play. The reasons people find themselves isolated are multi-faceted and therefore so too must be the solutions.  But what is important is not to characterise supporting older people as a chore, but to recognise the resource they offer.

Inter-generational projects in other countries have been very successful – who could not be moved by the delight on the faces of older care home residents when interacting with the children from their local kindy as seen in a Channel 4 programme from the UK, ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’? Inspiration also comes from another UK project, the Reading Agency,  which is using reading to empower, engage and connect isolated older people, including people with dementia and their carers.

What is crucial with all these programmes is that the older people involved are making a key contribution which is intrinsic to the activity and valued.  They are taking part reciprocally and pro-actively, rather than assuming a passive position where their contribution is less valued and may be unheard.

There are already some fantastic services out there in New Zealand. I was recently in Gisborne and attended one of the coffee mornings organised by the local Age Concern for older people who want the opportunity to connect and make new friends. The spirit of manaakitanga imbues everything they do and the organisers go above and beyond the terms of their contract. One kuia talked about having been taken camping for the first time, the treat made more special because of the “satin sheets” provided. 

The group is completely inclusive and while I was there, a homeless older woman sat silently at the back, eating and then leaving. There was a particularly poignancy to this woman’s attendance when the local social worker told me that it is increasingly hard to find emergency housing for older people in need – the social ills of our society clearly have no respect for age.

Members of the group also talked about the particular challenges for older people with dementia remaining connected to whānau, family and their wider community. Media reports of a local older person who had died alone had obviously shaken many. 

But while the concerns were many, the members of the group visibly benefited from the opportunity to chat to each other and come together under the leadership of manager Frances Toroa who described her work as acting like a ‘compass’ for the older people of Gisborne.

By investing in services like this, and other programmes that reduce social isolation, encourage engagement and give older people the opportunity to use their lifetime skills and resources, the health benefits will be huge, and the costs of stemming the tide of loneliness will be repaid many time over.  

Professor Merryn Gott is an end-of-life care expert from the University of Auckland's School of Nursing.

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