We have all experienced loneliness at some point. It’s common after big life changes like the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship or a move to a new place. But when loneliness persists, the consequences can be serious and for the fastest growing demographic group in Australia – people aged over 65– they can even be dire.
Loneliness is a distressing emotion felt when our social relationships are not meaningful and fulfilling. We may be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. Human beings are social by nature and we need high quality relationships for positive wellbeing.
So why are older people at high risk of social isolation and loneliness?
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Aussies over 65 are becoming increasingly more likely to live alone. Some may live away from loved ones, or have experienced the loss of their significant other, family member or friends. Other reasons why older people are prone to experience loneliness include:
- Chronic illness or disability
- Mobility issues
- Challenges with transportation
- The lack of technological ability in an increasingly digital world
- Belonging to vulnerable groups such as immigrants, LGBTQ+, minorities and victims of elder abuse
Living in a residential aged care facility may also be a contributing factor to loneliness, as older people can feel a lack of autonomy, difficulty maintaining a sense of identity, and a desire to avoid feeling like a burden to others.
Unfortunately, studies show there are detrimental health effects for older people who experience severe loneliness. In fact, research demonstrates a lack of social connection has the same effect on our body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and shockingly, it increases our likelihood of earlier death by 26 percent.
Loneliness has been linked to increased risk of:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Cognitive decline, including dementia
- Depression and anxiety
- Sleep disruption
- Elevated stress
- Weakened immune system
If one thing is certain, it’s the importance of a sense of belonging and connectedness to others to tackle loneliness, and live better for longer.
Here are some tips to manage loneliness and get back in touch with your community:
- Volunteer. Offer up your time to a cause you care about. You’ll make new connections and gain a newfound sense of purpose. Advocare offers volunteering opportunities under our Community Visitors Scheme – click here to learn more.
- Look into local seniors programs. Community centres, libraries and local councils often have seniors programs set up with weekly activities, events and opportunities to mingle with others in your area.
- Join a club or group. Exploring your hobbies and meeting like-minded people is a great way to get excited about starting the day.
- Adopt a pet. Pets, especially dogs, get you out and about, and caring for them creates a sense of purpose. If you are unable to own a pet, offer to look after a neighbour’s or volunteer at the local dog shelter.
- Seek transportation. Look into available free transport services for older people. You may be eligible under the Commonwealth Home Support program or as part of a Home Care Package, and if your mobility allows, take advantage of subsidised public transport.
- Make friends with technology. Video call loved ones on apps like Zoom, Skype or WhatsApp, or join a Facebook group based on an interest. You can also go online to find new recipes, learn new skills and keep up-to-date with the news.
- Reconnect with ‘Friendline’. This program connects you with volunteers for a friendly chat over the telephone.
- Find your ‘Village Hub’. This community-led initiative helps older people improve their mental and physical health through increased connections, and has multiple hubs across WA.
- Be Neighbourly. Start simple with a smile, or go a step further and invite a neighbour over for a cuppa. Being friendly with a neighbour offers many casual opportunities for connection.
Loneliness is tough, but it may be helpful to consider this emotion is letting us know we aren’t feeling meaningfully connected and trying to motivate us to make a change. Acknowledge your feelings without judgement, and take small steps to reach out and reconnect with your community.
Act, Belong, Commit: www.actbelongcommit.org.au
Advocare volunteering: www.advocare.org.au/volunteer-with-us
Volunteering WA: www.volunteeringwa.org.au
Friendline Program: friendline.org.au
Village Hubs: www.ilaustralia.org.au/rethink-ageing/villagehubs
Relationships WA: www.relationshipswa.org.au
Relationships WA ‘Very Neighbourly Tips’: www.relationshipswa.org.au/tip-sheets/very-neighbourly-tips
Neighbours Every Day: neighbourseveryday.org
Lifeline: www.lifeline.org.au or call 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: www.beyondblue.org.au
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html#:~:text=Loneliness%20and%20Social%20Isolation%20Linked%20to%20Serious%20Health%20Conditions [Accessed 1 Nov. 2022].
Connectability (2021). How does loneliness affect aging Australians? | ConnectAbility Australia. [online] Available at: https://www.connectability.org.au/how-does-loneliness-affect-aging-australians/ [Accessed 1 Nov. 2022].
www.dss.gov.au. (2022). Seniors Connected Program | Department of Social Services, Australian Government. [online] Available at: https://www.dss.gov.au/communities-and-vulnerable-people-programs-services/seniors-connected-program [Accessed 1 Nov. 2022].
Melbourne School of Population and Global Health. (2019). The challenge of social isolation and loneliness. [online] Available at: https://mspgh.unimelb.edu.au/ageing-industry-network/newsletter-issue-12-may-2019/the-challenge-of-social-isolation-and-loneliness [Accessed 1 Nov. 2022].
Psychology Week 2021. (2018). Australian Loneliness Report. [online] Available at: https://psychweek.org.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Psychology-Week-2018-Australian-Loneliness-Report-1.pdf [Accessed 1 Nov. 2022].
Relationships Australia QLD. (2022) Social Isolation in Older Adults. [online] Available at: https://www.raq.org.au/blog/social-isolation-older-adults [Accessed 1 Nov. 2022].
Relationships WA (2022). Loneliness – Relationships WA. [online] Available at: https://www.relationshipswa.org.au/tip-sheets/loneliness [Accessed 1 Nov. 2022].
World Health Organisation (2021). Advocacy Brief: Social isolation and loneliness among older people. [online] Available at: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240030749 [Accessed 1 Nov. 2022].