Loneliness is on the rise in Australia with one in three people affected but leading ageing expert, Jenneke Foottit, says there is a lot we can do to help older people feel less socially isolated – especially around festive periods and holidays.
Australian Catholic University’s Associate Professor Foottit says supporting older adults to age as well as possible, combat loneliness and build social connections is crucial.
“Loneliness could be our next public health crisis as it is repeatedly identified as a significant issue and some researchers believe the effect of loneliness on ageing to be worse than smoking,” she says
“Recent research has identified that for older adults, the connection to friends is more important than connection to family and yet these are the relationships most impacted by ageing.
“Periods like Easter are typically when friends and families come together and older adults experiencing loneliness may struggle as strong memories of happier, more connected times surface.”
Associate Professor Foottit says staying connected is critical to wellbeing in older adults. Her research found older adults visit shopping centres to socialise – not to shop but to talk to mothers and their young children, exercise and meet others.
“For older adults, staying socially connected means being able to interact with others in various ways, but for it to be significant, it needs to be face to face for the majority of the time,” she says.
Her recent evaluation of the effectiveness of healthy ageing live masterclasses offered by CatholicCare Sydney,Catholic Healthcare and Grief Care for those over 65, ranked social connection as the number one benefit to improving quality of life. She found the social setting of live masterclasses paired with expert knowledge on specific topics could improve health and wellbeing for older people.
“The ability to age well means having the necessary tools and resources to maintain their independence as well as social connectedness to community, friends, and family,” she says.
“Masterclasses can certainly help bridge the gap between education and improving skills while offering significant value of social connection face-to-face.”
Associate Professor Foottit says older adults tend to lose contact with friends because they become unable to bridge obstacles created by life events and ageing. No longer being able to drive, health and mobility issues, physical changes and cognitive decline are major obstacles to being social and can lead to loneliness and isolation.
“As a community, we have a responsibility to examine these issues and provide solutions,” she says. “These can range from minor and relatively cheap alternatives to large budget initiatives, but the real question is whether there is a will to support older adults to age well and remain in the place of their choice for as long as possible.”