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Tackling loneliness in older Australians and aged care

Photo: Befriending may address loneliness in aged care
Loneliness is a sign that we need to form more meaningful connections with others, and as we age, it’s not uncommon for relationships to decline due to the loss of loved ones to advancing age or illness.

A recent investigation into loneliness, The Australian loneliness Report, reveals that 1 in 4 Australians feel lonely three or more days a week, and nearly 55 per cent of the population feel that they lack companionship sometimes.

Clinical Psychotherapist Natajsa Wagner provides counselling services to one of Queensland’s largest aged care providers and has a professional interest in loneliness and the impact it has on emotional health and physical wellbeing.

“We know that the number one predictor of our human happiness is the quality of our relationships. By 'quality’ we are looking at the feelings of connectedness, belonging, value, safety and support.
“If we have limited relationships and opportunities for connection, our emotional and physical health suffers. We experience social pain as through loneliness and disconnection.

“We know that social pain registers the same as physical pain in our brains. So we can't underestimate the toll that loneliness is having on people,” said Ms Wagner.

Loneliness results in:
  • Increased social isolation
  • Decreased happiness
  • Higher rates of suicide and depression
  • Increased anti-social behaviour
  • A decline in physical and psychological health

Older adults who are isolated and alone have limited ability to engage in conversations and activities with others and can suffer from a lack of meaningful and supportive communication, explained Ms Wagner.

“This lack of opportunity to tell their own stories means that the ability to validate their lives, recognise themselves as they currently are and make sense of their stage of life is impacted.

“They can experience loneliness, loss of previous conversation partners, social groups and support systems. There is often a sense of feeling out of place and feeling confused about one's identity.”

However, elders can be supported to reconnect with themselves, others and their community in a range of ways said, Ms Wagner.

“Some of the work I do with older clients includes individual counselling or group counselling which allows people to improve their emotional health and wellbeing, develop a deeper capacity for creative innovation and also deepen their meaning and connection.”

Initiatives that enable older adults to engage more in their community, such as programs that seek to bring people from different age groups together, as well as social activities and group activities, are important in aged care.

“These initiatives can support those in aged care to feel and develop a sense of control and autonomy as well as increasing feelings of acceptance and respect. 

“Some of the benefits also include improved communication and understanding of relationships,” said Ms Wagner. 

Joy Fairhall, a positive psychology and wellbeing expert, supports those grieving the loss of a loved one and people diagnosed with a life-impacting chronic illness.

“I have seen firsthand the impact loneliness has on, not only mental health but also the physical effects.

“Those grieving the loss of a life partner can be especially lonely after the loss of a confidant. 

“Loneliness can also impact those diagnosed with chronic illness, as patients tend to feel isolated and lost, even when surrounded by family, friends and supporting medical teams,” said Ms Fairhall.

Befriending may decrease loneliness in aged care

The National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) is conducting research into
understanding the impact of befriending people living in residential care and delivering training to staff and volunteers working in aged care.

Professor Colleen Doyle, who is leading the NHMRC-funded project, told The Aged Care Institute: “Befriending involves having a conversation with a person about everyday topics and events in a friendly way without discussing health problems or emotions.”

According to Professor Doyle, about half of people living in residential aged care facilities may have significant symptoms of depression.

“This may be because of individual physical health factors, high prevalence of grief and loss among the residents, and the social environment. Many residents are socially isolated even though they are in communal living, and social isolation is a contributor to depression,” said Professor Doyle.

NARI reports that no studies have been carried out to test the effectiveness of befriending or non-directive emotional and social support for relieving depression symptoms experienced by older adults living in residential aged care facilities despite some evidence for its efficacy in other settings.

The literature provides some evidence for befriending in alleviating depression, anxiety, social isolation and loneliness as well as improving quality of life and wellbeing, but few studies have been conducted for older adults living in residential care.

The befriending research will include a cluster randomised controlled trial of befriending compared with treatment as usual to improve depression, anxiety, social support and loneliness among residents.

Two sizeable aged care providers with 3,620 residents will participate in the trial with volunteers trained using Beyond Blue resources and a manual for befriending developed by researchers.

“We are hoping that if the program is successful, it can be translated to the wider aged care sector to enable volunteers to more effectively support residents,” said Professor Doyle.

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.