For many elderly people living in residential care facilities or at home alone, loneliness can be overwhelming. In fact, the Royal Commission into Aged Care found that many aged care residents are feeling lonely.
As well as being mentally distressing, research has shown that loneliness can have a serious impact on physical health too. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and its associated restrictions on visitation and getting out and about in the community, many elderly people have felt the impact of being solitary more than ever.
While we continue to work with the changing guidelines required to keep people safe, we must also strive to prevent and overcome loneliness and its profound effect on health and wellbeing.
Common reasons for elderly loneliness
The thought of elderly individuals feeling lonely is upsetting, but it can often happen despite good intentions. There are many reasons for elderly loneliness, including:
Busy family lives:
We all know how busy life can get — it often feels there aren’t enough hours in the day for work, study and all life’s commitments. For families of ageing Australians, life sometimes gets in the way of them visiting or keeping in contact as frequently as they may like to. Children of elderly residents may have children or even grandchildren of their own keeping them busy.
Away at care homes:
There is not always a care facility available within close distance to family and friends, meaning that some elderly residents are further away to visit. Finding the time to visit can be challenging especially with travel time added in.
Lack of community:
Within quality aged care facilities, there are options to be involved in the community within the facility or more broadly. For elderly people living alone they may not have access to these options, or other facilities may not offer this.
While loneliness can make people withdraw, sometimes they may have withdrawn already other reasons. This is likely to exacerbate any health and wellbeing challenges an elderly person may be facing and can be an unpleasant cycle.
As mentioned earlier, the pandemic has meant that there have been many periods of time where visitors have not been allowed due to restrictions. On top of this, some relatives have been hesitant to visit for fear of spreading Covid-19 unknowingly.
The impact of loneliness in old age
Regardless of the reason behind an elderly individual experiencing loneliness, the impact can be serious. Some studies found that a lack of social connection can carry health risks equivalent to other high-risk behaviours such as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Loneliness can result in:
- A decline in physical and psychological health: Not only can loneliness bring about a range of health issues, it can worsen existing conditions. Loneliness has been linked to higher blood pressure, reduced immunity, heart disease and dementia.
- Increased isolation and anti-social behaviour: Continuing that cycle of withdrawing and not wanting to participate in activities, communicate or socialise.
- Higher rates of suicide and depression: Depression should never be a normal page of ageing, and loneliness can make a big difference. With men over 85 years of age having highest rate of suicide in the country, mental health is a serious issue in aged care.
Improving quality of life in aged care
Thankfully there are many strategies we can put in place to support ageing Australians and reduce elderly loneliness. Carers, aged care facilities, families and communities can all play a role in helping people who are experiencing feelings of loneliness to feel more connected and seen.
Engage in conversation: Whether you’re a carer or a family member, make the effort to engage in conversation when you are with a person living in aged care or home alone. Rather than just getting the job done providing care, extend that sense of care provision to an offer of companionship. Ask how they are and what they have been doing, share what you have been doing, recommend a book or television program… Making someone feel like they matter and aren’t alone in the world doesn’t take a lot of effort and can make an enormous difference.
Regular check ins: Carers can encourage family members to have a regular time that they call or visit. This gives elderly individuals something to look forward to and structure their time around. It also makes it more easily achievable for family members — if it’s a regular slot on the calendar, it’s more likely to be done.
Create connections and activities: Loneliness isn’t much of a motivator, so we can help reduce sense of isolation by offering new opportunities for connection and participation. Lifestyle programs in aged care settings can be explored, looking to add options for fun and interaction. This can be through outings, art and craft, lessons and more.
Creating lifestyle programs for the elderly is also a career pathway in itself. The Certificate IV in Leisure and Health leads to a career helping ageing individuals to get the most from life and participate in a range of activities that suit their wants and needs.
There is support for those who need it
Aged care workers and family members can help seniors overcome loneliness, but sometimes extra help could be needed.
We have compiled a list of mental health support resources here for you to access for more assistance with lifting the quality the of life for elderly Australians. It’s important to reach out on behalf of those in your care when further support might be needed from a medical professional.
As an aged care worker, providing compassionate care can help create a better life for the oldest members of our communities.
To get started with a meaningful career in the sector or upskill and shine in aged care, check out Selmar’s courses.