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The high levels of loneliness among frail elderly people revealed in a world-first study reflect "increasing fragmentation" in society.
Geriatrician and researcher Dr Hamish Jamieson, at the University of Otago’s Christchurch campus, made that comment yesterday. Dr Jamieson and fellow researcher Dr Sally Keeling led the "world-first" Otago University study of 72,000 older New Zealanders, which showed that one in five — amounting to 15,000 people — identified as lonely.
The study was recently published in the Australasian Journal on Ageing, and the research was funded by the Ageing Well National Science Challenge, a government initiative to improve the lives of older people.
The findings come from research on InterRai, a computer-related universal assessment of elderly living in the community who need home services or are being considered for entry into care.
The "high levels of loneliness" reflected increasing social fragmentation, given that many people were "working long hours and travelling more", and some apparent weakening of community networks, he said.
• Of those surveyed, 21% were lonely.
• The ethnic group most likely to be lonely was Asian (23%).
• Pacific Islanders were the least lonely group (17%).
• Mean age of participants: 82.7 years.
• 61% were female
• 88.4% identified as European; 5.4% as Maori; 3.1% as Pasifika, 2.3% as Asian.
• Just over half lived with others (50.4%). In this group, 31.7% lived with a spouse or partner only, and 10.9% lived with a child.
Salvation Army national director of social policy Major Campbell Roberts, of Wellington, welcomed the research, which he said highlighted key issues for the health system and community welfare.
Major Roberts, formerly of Dunedin, said children were working longer hours and some had moved away, including overseas, reducing their ability to visit and support an elderly parent.
Overall health costs would be reduced and individual people and the broader community would benefit if more resources were provided to help older people to keep living at home, he said.
Dr Jamieson said interactions with friends and neighbours were important.
By contrast, loneliness could make many health conditions worse, including pain, depression, and anxiety.