Making the social connection

Debbie George
Debbie George

Loneliness is one of the greatest challenges of growing old. As part of the Otago Daily Times ongoing series of articles on ageing, Mike Houlahan looks at the challenge of keeping older people active in their community, and the role volunteers play in that.

It is a hive of activity in the Age Concern Otago building.

The committee of the Octagon Club active ageing centre is meeting in one room, while elsewhere in the building the arts and crafts and indoor bowls groups are at work and play.

Meanwhile, in the office, the work days of 15 paid staff and a roster of 1022 volunteers are being planned, to meet the needs of the 10,000 people helped in some way by Age Concern annually.

There is a diverse range of programmes and services to be co-ordinated - Meals on Wheels, English as a second language classes for seniors, the accredited visiting service, independent living seminars, falls prevention and safe driving classes among others.

They all have one central aim though, Age Concern Otago chief executive Debbie George says - to combat loneliness.

"Volunteering is one of the best ways to combat social isolation,'' Ms George said.

"I don't know what it is about Otago, but I have worked abroad, I have worked throughout New Zealand, and I have never seen a volunteer workforce like this. It's just incredible and something every person in Otago should be proud of.''

Yoram Barak
Yoram Barak
Age Concern volunteers are screened, rigorously trained and usually direct their own activities.

There are obvious health benefits to many of Age Concern's programmes, such as the 105 fall prevention classes throughout Otago which aim to maintain people's strength and balance.

However, they do as much for people's mental wellbeing as they do for their physical welfare.

"There are around 2000 participants, and they go regularly,'' Ms George said.

"They reduce falls, but it's the social connections which are vital ... they start off not knowing each other and are shy and timid, but later on they bounce in the door with a spring in their step, because they made social connections.

"Those groups form for exercise and cost a gold coin donation, but with the money left over they all go out for coffee afterwards - the spin-off socially is amazing.''

University of Otago academics Yoram Barak and Sharon Leitch have studied loneliness for years.

A wealth of research has already confirmed a connection between loneliness and a wide range of physical and mental illnesses.

Sharon Leitch
Sharon Leitch
Now Associate Prof Barak and Dr Leitch are looking at the variables which increase the risk factor of loneliness - including blindness and deafness, gender, relationships with children - and whether the course of dementia is predictable.

Dr Barak said society was going to age more - the key problem was how to make people age better.

"We know that the fastest growing section of the population is those aged 85 and older - a recent US study suggested a baby born now in a modernised western society is likely to have an age expectancy of 100 years.

"If dementia was a country, it would be the seventh largest country in the world ... we need to afford quality ageing for everyone.''

Dr Leitch said figures from a recent study on loneliness and centenarians suggested people aged around 65 tended to be more lonely, and people got less lonely as they got older.

"By the time you got to a hundred, you may have been a widow for 40 years,'' she said.

Widow being the key word - men tended to be lonelier, especially widowers.

"There is a complex relationship between marriage, ageing and loneliness,'' Dr Leitch said.

"And that is an exciting discovery,'' Dr Barak added.

"If you find that, it suggests that you should focus on widowers rather than widows - and if you are an organisation like Age Concern with scarce resources, it helps identify the cohort of people they should concentrate on.''

Age Concern Otago was set up in 1948, partially inspired by a series of Otago Daily Times articles about the lack of services for older people.

Its original six-point programme is remarkably consistent with its present strategic plan.

"We're an organisation which has stuck to its knitting,'' Ms George said.

"Our clubs are peer-led, it's all done by volunteers who set up their own committees - we're not telling them what to do and how to do it, and I think that's one of the keys, to empower people to make their own decisions.''

Informal surveys in Otago have suggested perhaps a third of older people experienced loneliness, and Age Concern was involved with several agencies to provide services to address that, Ms George said.

Those included the Total Mobility Scheme (which enabled people to receive half-price taxi fares), social media lessons and its Accredited Visiting Service.

"A volunteer visits them at home and provides regular contact and companionship,'' Ms George said.

"It is mutually beneficial and often intergenerational.''

Age Concern and Presbyterian Support Otago were also working with Mosgiel's older residents to revamp Mosgiel Senior Citizens to Taieri Age Connect - a drop-in centre and information/resource hub in Mosgiel.

"There is so much on around Mosgiel, but it's tricky for people to know what, where and when - it's about developing an information hub for people,'' Ms George said.

"The research is very clear that the health consequences of being lonely are huge - they are putting it up there with smoking in terms of earlier mortality.''


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