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Combating Loneliness in Aged Care

Late in 2017, Australia’s Aged Care Minister, Ken Wyatt, told the National Press Club that up to 40 percent of people in aged care homes never get visitors. We may think that statistics in New Zealand are better than our neighbour's, but the truth is that one-third of elderly Kiwis spend over eight hours alone each day. One-fifth of frail elderly are lonely. This is a problem in New Zealand as well.

Social isolation is said to be worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, with links to cardiovascular disease, cognitive loss and depression. It’s expected that one in four Kiwis will be aged 65+ by 2036, making this a growing public health issue as well as a concern for people’s personal happiness.

The aged care sector is in the best position to help alleviate this problem, but at the moment more people in residential care feel lonely than those still in their own homes. For businesses in the sector, this statistic points to opportunities to increase social interaction for residents, bringing happiness to their customers and growth to their business.

Building Communities

Retirement villages have been moving in this direction for some time through communal areas, events and groups based around fitness and hobbies. This seems to get lost as people move toward assisted living, perhaps due to increased frailty and the need for more care. Continuing this interaction in residential care homes can help combat loneliness.

Some homes are bringing innovative living arrangements to the problem. Selwyn Village will house residents in households of 12 people, with separate bedrooms and bathrooms but a shared lounge, kitchen and dining area. This shared living will promote a sense of belonging and family.

Other ideas may be for mixed-use facilities. Some people are discussing situating child care and aged care in the same space, with both children and the elderly benefiting from the interaction. New facilities could also be situated in residential areas rather than isolated from the rest of the community, allowing residents to go to cafes, shops and churches in the surrounding areas.

Attracting Families

Interacting with people is not the same thing as seeing family. Some residents may not have family, or their family may be too far away to visit. But for most, the reason family doesn’t visit is time. Most families require two adults working to afford mortgages and other living expenses, and they find it difficult to get out to homes.

Homes can make it easier for families to visit. Some homes have a family night with a shared dinner, taking the responsibility of cooking off of the shoulders of families while giving them time with parents and grandparents. Building facilities in residential areas, as discussed above, can also prompt people to visit, as travel time is reduced if they’re close to their loved ones.

Some families report feeling guilty after visits because they can’t do more to help. Creating spaces that show the community is actually a home can help ease everyone’s discomfort. Having comfortable visiting areas where families can catch up and play games and that show how happy the residents are will quell fears. Having family visit increases the happiness of the residents, bringing positive outcomes for everyone.

Importance of Staff

Finally, the sector shouldn't forget the importance of staff. Researchers in aged care say that aged care workers are not often educated about the social factors of growing old. An ongoing international study is training workers to give a little extra, develop a caring environment and assess psychosocial needs. It’s hoped that the results will show the industry new ways of staff training that help end social isolation in residents.

Homes shouldn’t forget organisations such as Age Concern, Men’s Sheds and local craft groups that help people feel connected to their community. But thinking creatively can bring innovation that helps residents live happier and healthier lives while also helping businesses improve their facilities and their bottom line.