A suite of approaches designed to create meaningful social connections for older people is the key to addressing the serious issue of social isolation, Bolton Clarke Research Institute Senior Research Fellow Rajna Ogrin has said.
In preparation for an upcoming symposium in Australia, Dr Ogrin along with Professor Cath Haslam from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology are discussing their work and research into social isolation.
Professor Haslam said research showed people who are lonely – experiencing unwanted social isolation – are at heightened risk of experiencing depression and may have a reduced life expectancy.
However, the health benefits of any social interaction depending on the strength of the connection achieved, which related in part to shared interests or experiences that could create a bond.
Her work in this area includes a Groups 4 Health intervention programme.
“Groups 4 Health aims to give people the knowledge and skills to develop meaningful, positive relationships that are going to protect their health in the longer term,” she said.
“Where relationships are positive and add meaning to a person’s life is where the benefits to health and wellbeing will emerge.”
Dr Rajna Ogrin said one problem with creating social connection programs was the tendency to “lump older people together”.
“We think of older people as aged 65 and above, but people are living into their 100s so we have a 40-year spread of people with different health needs, different backgrounds and emotional needs,” she said.
“What we are finding is that no one program meets everyone’s needs and so we are going to need to develop a suite of activities or different approaches that will help people connect with the community in a way that is suitable for them.
“Older people are more vulnerable and women living by themselves, for example, tend to lose their social connections as they get older.”
Here in New Zealand, Dr Hamish Jamieson, senior lecturer in older persons’ health at the University of Otago, says if you’re socially isolated, “you are more at risk of depression and anxiety, and some chronic conditions such as pain, can become worse.”
As reported on the Super Seniors website, Jamieson says society has changed with people moving away from family and working longer hours.
“All of that has led to the breakdown of communities and of neighbourhood and family supports; for example, it was very normal for older people to live with their children as they got very old and they became very frail but now that’s becoming more and more infrequent.”
Through data collected via InterRAI Jamieson is studying the impacts of a lack of social engagement, as part of research for the Ageing Well National Science Challenge.
“We’re hoping [this] will provide some data around this particular problem – how much it is affecting older people, both from a number perspective and also a cost perspective; what it’s costing the country,” he says.
If the research shows social isolation is a risk factor for poor outcomes, he believes health boards might then look at bolstering support for Age Concern’s accredited visiting service, and there may be an impact nationally.
“It will help guide the government on how big the problem is if we can put some strong data around it, and that will help improve policy at a national level.
“We hope this data will then be able to be used to help improve services to minimise social isolation for older people. “