Love thy neighbour: How to help older people deal with social isolation and loneliness

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.

ACU’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.”

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.”

Top 5 tips for the helping older people feel less lonely:

  1. Get to know the older adults in your neighbourhood. It is not necessary to visit them in their home, but chat over the fence, and once they know you, exchange phone numbers and encourage them to call you if they have a problem.
  2. Get to know the routines of older adults in your neighbourhood, particularly the ones who live alone. Look for signs that something is out of the ordinary – like curtains not being opened when they usually are, papers or mail not collected, washing not taken off the line.
  3. Chat to older adults where you encounter them at the shop, bus or park. Ask about their day. For some older adults that may be the only interaction they have for days or weeks. Some older adults shop daily or often, simply to talk to the staff at the shop.
  4. Inform older adults of events such as school concerts, community activities, and opportunities to attend to help them to stay connected to their local community.
  5. Be patient with older adults. They need more time to walk across the street, go to their car in the car park, pick out their shopping. Some older adults may be grumpy, but they may also be in pain. Look past the grumpiness and share some kind words.

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