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Working together to create social connection

louise-reesLouise Rees
National Coordinator Social Connection Services
Age Concern New Zealand

Loneliness has been in the news lately. We’re seeing headlines about a loneliness epidemic, and the health effects of loneliness. There is concern about lonely older people, and the economic impact of loneliness and social isolation as our population ages. We’re seeing articles about Age-Friendly Cities and Communities, and the UK’s new minister for loneliness. There are campaigns to end loneliness and promote kindness, and there are stories about people and communities coming together.

So, what’s behind all the headlines? Is there an epidemic? The answer is not simple, because loneliness is measured differently in different studies and across different locations. Cautiously though, the work of lead researchers from the UK  and US provides some evidence that the prevalence of loneliness and social isolation may be increasing.

One thing we can say for certain is that, since the 1960s, there has been an extraordinary, and unprecedented rise in the number of one-person-households in developed and developing nations across the world. By 2015, 24% of Australian and New Zealand households contained only one person, and in Scandinavia and Germany around 40% of households were single-occupancy.

What we can also say is that older people in New Zealand, especially older women, are disproportionately likely to be living alone. New Zealand stats show that here, as in other parts of the world, rates of loneliness decrease in mid-life, but rise again in the 75+ age group. A recent study of over 70,000 frail older New Zealanders aged on average 82.7 years, showed that 21% of the study participants (and 29% of those living alone) were lonely.

This means that, as the population ages, we will see greater numbers of older people living alone, and experiencing loneliness. This matters, not just because loneliness is a painful experience, but because it’s a known risk factor for a range of serious health conditions, early mortality, entry into rest home care, and increased use of formal health services. As a result, there is increasing concern from policy-makers about the economic impact of loneliness and isolation. There is also interest in the potential of communities to support older people to remain connected.

Fortunately, there’s a lot that can be done. We’re seeing approaches and interventions that range from international to individual level, and involve policy-makers, researchers, campaigners, service providers, the business sector, not-for-profit organisations, and people in their own neighbourhoods and communities. However, there are challenges ahead.

Though loneliness can happen to any of us as we face life’s challenges and transitions, it has been referred to in the UK as “the last taboo”. At the UK Campaign to End Loneliness 2017 conference, one theme that emerged strongly was the need to destigmatize loneliness, and reframe it as a cue to take action, and a solvable problem. Another key theme was the need for organisations to work together, because no single agency can create transformative change.

Age Concern New Zealand promotes social connection through a range of interventions from our national visiting service, to locally-developed solutions such as social groups and outings, navigation of services, and transport to activities. We are aware though, that other organisations are making equally valuable contributions.

At local level, we see the benefits of collaboration. One example is the lunch and games club in Turangi. RSA had an underused venue, and willing volunteers. Age Concern knew of older people who wanted to get out and meet each other.  We put those things together, and now have a thriving weekly club. Group members decide on the games and activities, and teach each other skills. Volunteers help with transport and morning tea, and the low-cost activity is made sustainable through gold coin donations from participants.

Age Concern New Zealand are now exploring how we can scale up those local collaborations to national level. We want to share and spread what works, and develop messages that make it easier for people to ask for and offer support if they, or those they know, experience a lack in the quantity or quality of their social connections.

As a first step, we ran a workshop in April, with local Age Concerns and external organisations. We explored what we’re all currently doing in this space, and how we could work together to do better. Thank you to the organisations who took part, and shared their knowledge. We are collating the information and will be in touch again soon. If you want to join the conversation please get in touch.

Naku te rourou nau te rourou ka ora ai te iwi.

 For more information contact Louise Rees, National Coordinator Social Connection Services, Age Concern New Zealand Louise.rees@ageconcern.org.nz

This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network

ComVoices is a Wellington based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. It was established so that sector organisations would have a more powerful voice at Government level and in the community.

Click here for our website:  http://comvoices.org.nz/