Mind

Why loneliness is becoming so widespread in NZ and the organisations doing something about it

Interactions with friends and neighbours can help older people maintain their sense of independence.

By Donna Fleming

They're heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. When Age Concern surveyed some elderly people who use a service that provides them with weekly visitors to help counter loneliness, many of the replies were touching.

"I was lonely, feeling isolated, with no light at the end of the tunnel and didn't want to be here," said one. "My visitor is a good listener and we have become good friends. I look forward to her visits."

Said another, "It has made me feel more wanted."

"I have someone of my own," added a third.

Loneliness affects people of all ages, with New Zealand's General Social Survey showing that it's young people aged 15 to 24 who report feeling most isolated. Feeling alone then decreases over the next few decades, but once we reach our seventies, loneliness rears its ugly head again, with those over 80 especially vulnerable.

Louise Rees, Age Concern's national social connect advisor, says the organisation hears of some very sad cases. "A lot of people who are on their own all day feel that they are not wanted. They think nobody is interested in them and they start thinking, 'What is the point of me?' There are many elderly people who have little social contact with others because of their circumstances, and it makes life very hard for them."

Stephanie Clare, the CEO of Age Concern, adds, "Research has been done into the effects of loneliness on our health, and we know that it can have a huge impact. It can shorten your life and in some cases, make it unpleasant so that you feel
it is not worth living. And that is not something that can be fixed by taking a couple of tablets and calling the doctor."

Society needs to accept that loneliness is a major issue for many people and do something about it, says Stephanie. Age Concern is so worried about the effect loneliness is having on older people that it is joining forces with other organisations such as the Returned Services Association and The Salvation Army - and trying to get corporate support – to help Kiwi pensioners have better social connections.

"We really want to end loneliness. If we can connect people to others and reduce their loneliness, you can also improve their health and reduce the opportunities for people to take advantage of them, and abuse them physically and financially. It can have a very wide-reaching impact."

But one of the stumbling blocks is that many people are embarrassed to admit they're struggling with being alone.

"We're happier to talk about having illnesses like breast cancer than we are to talk about being lonely," says Stephanie. "People don't ask for help. There shouldn't be any stigma attached to telling people that's what you're going through."

One of the obvious reasons older people feel lonely is because many of them are living alone, often because their spouse or partner has died – and the grief can make their loneliness worse. According to the 2013 New Zealand census, 52% of Kiwi women aged over 75 were living alone, compared to 25% of men. It's a situation many women find themselves in as they tend to live longer than men, and men are more likely than women to find a new partner after theirs dies.

Plus, the days of your family living nearby and frequently popping around are long gone, points out Louise.

"It is an effect of modern living that families are much more dispersed now, not just around the country but around the world. It's a lot less common for people to stay in the same area where they grew up, and to have lots of family nearby."

Even if your loved ones are in the same location, they may have busy lives and little time to spend with older relatives. Chances are the children of people aged 70 plus are still working, and need to devote a lot of time to their own children.And they can't always rely on friends to be around for them. As a result, social circles start to shrink.

"What can happen as we age is that we might spend a lot of time concentrating on our families, and once our children leave home and go off on their own, it can be difficult to re-establish friendships with people if we haven't seen them in a long time," explains Louise.

In the Weekly's series on retirement last year, we talked to Lower Hutt retiree Erica Whyte about how she had coped with the changes to her life since finishing work. While diligent saving throughout her life had helped financially, she pointed out that the best investment she made was putting effort into maintaining friendships.

"Having good friendships is so important in retirement," Erica, who was widowed six years after she and husband Don quit working, told us. "Your children are going through a busy time in their own lives with their jobs and families, so often it is your own peer group that gives you support, because they are sharing the experience."

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to stay in touch with friends if one or both of you has health or mobility issues, which makes spending time together tricky.

"There can be practical barriers, such as not being able to drive any more," says Louise. "Or you might not be able to walk very far, which makes getting out and about difficult.

"Hearing and visual impairment can be a big barrier to connecting socially too. We get feedback from people with hearing problems who do have the opportunity to join in group activities but find them really difficult because they can't hear what is going on and be involved in conversations. They can be surrounded by people but still feel quite isolated. They do much better in one-on-one situations."

Lack of income is another factor. Meeting up with others for lunch or participating in activities like the movies can be beyond some people's budgets.

The good news is that there are organisations and services available to help people combat their loneliness. These include Age Concern's free Accredited Visiting Service (AVS), which arranges for volunteers to visit a lonely person aged 65 and over for about an hour each week to chat and enjoy shared interests.

About 2500 people around the country benefit from the service, and nearly 90% of them say having a visitor has made them feel less alone. There are likely to be many more who would enjoy it if only they would ask for help. But it's not just
up to them – the rest of us can do our bit by reaching out to someone we feel may be lonely.

"Often we'd be happy to have a chat with someone or offer to drive them somewhere but we don't do it because we think it could be awkward or we feel like we might be intruding if we make a friendly gesture," says Louise. "Actually, there is very little to lose. Why not take a risk and reach out to someone who might be lonely?

"You could end up making a world of difference."

Loneliness and your health

Being lonely is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to international research. A study carried out by US psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad in 2010 found that feeling socially isolated can have the same effect on mortality as well-known risk factors like obesity and cigarette smoking.

Other research has shown that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, depression and anxiety, and cognitive decline.

One study found that lonely people have a whopping 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia, which is thought to be partly due to a lack of mental stimulation.

According to a study by the University of Otago, Christchurch, around one in five older New Zealanders is lonely. Researcher Dr Hamish Jamieson, who carried out the study with Dr Sally Keating, says they wanted to understand how many people are affected because of the effect loneliness is thought to have on health.

"Interactions with friends and neighbours are important, and can help older people maintain their sense of independence and sustain the ability to look after themselves," he says.

"In contrast, loneliness can make many health conditions worse, including pain, depression, anxiety and respiratory conditions."

How to beat loneliness

Making social connections with other people is definitely easier if you are mobile and healthy.

You might want to consider:
• Contacting the Citizens Advice Bureau to find out about groups and activities in your area. Local libraries can also be a good source of information about book clubs, walking groups, historical societies, gardening clubs etc.

• Getting in touch with organisations like Fellowship New Zealand (formerly Probus) and the University of the Third Age, which offer activities designed to keep retired people mentally stimulated and engaged with each other.

• Volunteering. Offering to help others is a great way of connecting with people. It could mean working for one afternoon a week at a charity shop, driving people to hospital appointments if you're capable or even being part of a visiting programme.

• If you use social media, looking for local online groups that also meet up in person.

• Getting to know your neighbours. Check out the Neighbourly website neighbourly.co.nz.

• The Office for Seniors has a guide to social isolation on its website, and also provides ideas on how to stay socially connected.

• If it is tricky for you to get out and about, you may be able to get visits in your own home through Age Concern's Accredited Visitor Service. See the Age Concern website.

• The Salvation Army runs a visiting programme in some parts of the country. See the salvation army website.

• If it's an option, moving to a retirement village can make a big difference. With people of a similar age and onsite activities, there are opportunities aplenty to socialise and make new friends.

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