All the lonely people: battling isolation

January 23, 2017

Loneliness is becoming one of the most pressing issues for elderly Australians, with an estimated one in 10 people aged over 65 struggling with chronic isolation.

The Ageing is Everyone’s Business report shows that, in Victoria alone, more than 107,000 older people struggle with loneliness and isolation.

And their chronic loneliness is making them sick. The report suggests that social isolation is as much a health risk factor for older Australians as smoking, drinking and obesity. Common issues include high blood pressure, poorer quality and quantity of sleep, mental health and wellbeing issues such as anger and depression, increased rates of cognitive decline and increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Older people who experience severe loneliness are up to 14 per cent more likely to die prematurely and more men over 85 commit suicide than any other age group.

The issue also places an increasing burden on community resources such as medical services and aged care facilities. Lonely people are 60 per cent more likely to use emergency services and are twice as likely to be admitted to residential aged care, the “Loneliness, Housing and Health in Australia” report found.

A way out of loneliness
With as many as a quarter of Australians aged 65 and over living alone at the last census – and an ageing population – social isolation and loneliness are firmly on the community’s agenda.

Australian policymakers have launched an array of services for the elderly including health programs aimed at restoring mobility and function, opportunities to volunteer, interactions with people of diverse backgrounds and ages and social media courses.

Following a NSW-based project called Connecting Older Adults, which trained 150 elderly people to use social media, participants recorded feeling less lonely and more than half said social networking tools had helped them feel more engaged with their community.

While government and community organisations are aware of the problem, the primary burden of caring for our isolated elderly falls to their children. But not all of those children are the dutiful, compassionate offspring we expect them to be.

In China, where 34 per cent of the population will be aged over 60 by 2050 – the government has gone so far as to pass new laws requiring children to visit their elderly parents and as provide emotional as well as financial support. Under the Elderly Rights Law, passed in 2013, children who neglect their parents risk fines or even jail terms.

Australia is unlikely to take such drastic measures, but for the generation burdened with not just the care of elderly parents but also of younger family members, too – the baby boomers – the issue is more about being supported in their role.

It’s not for nothing they’re known as the “sandwich generation”, under pressure to care for ageing parents as well as grandchildren and even adult children still living at home.

One in five Australians lives in a household made up of two or more generations of related adults, according to a study by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute. And the Grandparent Childcare and Labour Market Participation in Australia report by National Seniors Australia found that grandparents are the nation’s most popular form of childcare.

Spread the care

Mercer Financial Advice Team Leader Diane Haggett advises those under pressure to care for elder relatives to meet with their families to discuss and distribute tasks more equally. It can be hard to strike a deal everyone is pleased with, so it can pay to seek professional help.

“It’s difficult enough just having a couple in a room and getting consensus on what they’re trying to achieve, so if there are four or five other parties involved it makes it difficult,” Haggett says. “It’s very much a family conversation and that can be part of what we do for clients – bringing the family together.”

Finding support

There is help available for people who are ageing under stress as well as their loved ones. From government payments to in-home care, Meals on Wheels and active groups, there are numerous ways families can find support.

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