Loneliness is one of the biggest problems encountered by older people.
More often living alone, possibly restricted in what they can do, and sometimes no longer able to work or drive, the world can sometimes seem restricted for people once they reach a certain age, often leaving them feeling isolated and alone.
Not having regular connections with others not only makes people feel miserable, it is now well established that it also has a negative impact on physical health.
Research has shown that loneliness can increase the risk of heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, and even suicide attempts, and has health effects akin to obesity and smoking.
A recent Red Cross survey found that nearly one-quarter of Australians – that’s 5.6 million people – regularly experience loneliness. Although loneliness has many causes, the Red Cross survey found the most common were the death of a loved one, friends and family moving away, divorce or separation, and loss of employment.
With populations ageing across the developed world and social isolation on the rise, some countries are finding creative new ways to tackle the issue. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Prime Minister has appointed a Minister for Loneliness.
Manvi, an Industry Trainer and Assessor at the Sarina Russo Institute, said tackling loneliness is something she is passionate about, and suggests there are a number of ways that older people can remain connected to their social networks that can prevent them from succumbing to loneliness.
Even if an older person can’t drive, other forms of transport can easily be made available.
For some older people, the effort involved in getting out of the house and seeing friends, or being involved with outside activities, can create challenges. And if an older person can no longer drive, they can feel particularly frustrated by the fact they are losing their independence, and are less able to move about as they wish.
But if transport is available, such as with Ubers, taxis, free buses, or good public transport, then that barrier is removed, and the person is better able to maintain an active life. They can be out and about, and can more easily stay connected with friends and family.
“They can go and have a cup of coffee, and it’s not a herculean task,” said Manvi.
Manvi said older people have often achieved a great deal in their lives, but when they reach old age they suddenly feel “useless”.
Volunteering can help older people find a new purpose in their lives, and they “suddenly feel useful.” Volunteering can contribute to strong feelings of wellbeing, she said.
Whatever skills or interests a person may have, there will always be an opportunity to volunteer, whether it be helping in the library at the local school, helping to regenerate bushland in local parks, teaching chess or bridge, or leading tour groups.
So many new technologies are aimed at building social connections – and that includes for older people!
Younger people can be particularly helpful here, in showing older family members how to use devices, software, and apps.
“Youngsters can do their bit here – the older ones have already done their bit,” said Manvi.
Youngsters can show older family members how to use Skype or Facebook, which can enable them to connect with friends and family all over the world.
“Technology can make them feel involved,” said Manvi.
Learning how to use the Uber app can also be extremely helpful for older people, Manvi suggested, because it provides not only mastery of an app, but it also provides access to a reliable and reasonably cheap form of transport.
If an older person is given something to take care of – whether it be a plant, a task, or even a pet – it can help to satisfy that person’s nurturing drive, says Manvi.
“It need not be a dog or cat, it may be a sapling,” she said. Plants need water and sunlight, and regular attention, and some say they can even be company.
Good plants for older people to look after can be succulents, lillies, or ferns, which can all be grown indoors or on sheltered balconies.
We can all find ways to help older people feel connected, said Manvi, and we should think about how we would like to be treated ourselves as we grow older.
“Everyone should think that one day we will reach that age,” she said.