Sep 12, 2023

Exploring the role of Sociology in Gerontology, loneliness research

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The sociological concepts in both papers hold that these stories and illustrations can contain subtleties and moods not often apparent in drier research. [Source: Monash University]

Key points:

  • The stories and illustrations, rather than just documenting the facts of their lives and treating loneliness as the same thing for all people, emphasise the “personal contexts” of the aged care residents
  • The stories and artwork were created from 101 hours of interviews with 22 residents aged between 65 and 95 from two different aged care facilities
  • The first paper two years ago focused on a sociological technique called “crystallisation” – a multi-genre approach to study and present social phenomena which asks for reflection on researchers’ roles, and how participants’ voices are represented

Sociologists from across the country have been exploring ways to better capture and represent the voices and experiences of those living in aged care and now, existing research has been extended to explore now the interpersonal aspects of sociology could positively impact gerontology. 

Two years ago, Monash sociologist Doctor Barbara Barbosa Neves and a group of researchers – including an acclaimed Australian author – began looking into loneliness among residents of Australian aged care facilities. Now, the unique research project has been updated, extended, illustrated and published in The Gerontologist journal with accompanying comic-like art. 

The sociological concepts in both papers hold that these stories and illustrations can contain subtleties and moods not often apparent in drier research. 

Reports also show more than 40% of aged care residents in Australia did not get any visitors before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Co-author Josephine Wilson and illustrator Amanda Brooks came on board to create the literature and corresponding art after immersing themselves in hours of interviews with residents – exploring their experience, understanding of loneliness, and how they address it. 

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One of the illustrations from the “Live Gerontology”: Understanding and Representing Aging, Loneliness, and Long-Term Care Through Science and Art paper. [Source: Monash University]

The paper and art is based on the experiences of two residents Gurney* and Patricia*. Both Gurney and Patricia touch on ageism, stereotypes, and how those around them rarely take their point of view seriously. 

Both felt isolated, and both offered what the researchers call “micro forms of resistance”, such as refusing bingo or smuggling a private kettle into their room, and both often used their imaginations, as reflected in the stories and drawings.

The Ageing Population – A Different Lens, by Monash University

Gurney, a former hospital warden who loves aircraft and hates bingo, is 90 and originally confessed he felt lonely all day – but joked it was “no more than once a day”.

Patricia, 79, worked in a factory, married a “wonderful man”, had four children, and went ballroom dancing. While in aged care, she spent her days looking at a row of trees out her window which represented a constant presence for her. 

Dr Neves explained that gerontology frequently focuses heavily on the biomedical aspects of ageing, whereas social sciences can look at social and cultural dimensions “to understand ageing beyond ‘biological decline’”.

She said “Most of our participants do not tell their family or friends that they’re lonely because of the stigma of loneliness, and because they already feel that they’re so dependent, this just brings another layer of personal failure.”

“A lot of the work in gerontology is about sensorial decline. We wanted to bring a different way of thinking. How can we use the senses through artistic collaborations to really understand not just what people say and what they report, but what they feel, what they sense, what they perform? How do they inhabit this social world?” she said. 

*Pseudonyms used to protect identities

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  1. Old or young…..
    Love your neighbor as yourself.
    If neighbors did that, even further out into the world
    It would be a Wonderful World for us and everybody
    else to live in.

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