15 Jul 2018

Insight: Loneliness - Facing the Void

From Insight, 8:12 am on 15 July 2018

The United Kingdom has recently established a Minister for Loneliness and a "Campaign to End Loneliness" is also under way. For Insight, Sally Round takes a look at how it has become a pressing issue in New Zealand as the population ages, society changes and people are expected to live longer in their own homes

Depressed elderly widow sitting alone at home

Photo: 123RF

If a room can tell a life story, this one can. Faded photos and a curling calendar on the walls, trinkets and papers on every table top. Teacups and crochet work and a clock ticking solemnly on the wall. The curtains are pulled against the pale winter sun leaving a stubborn chill in the air.

Louisa* sits petite and bird-like in her wheelchair and her face lights up when a visitor comes through the door.

City Mission worker Annette visits Louisa

City Mission worker Annette visits Louisa Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Wellington City Mission case worker Annette is doing her rounds of the frail and elderly in the Hutt Valley and she's come to check on Louisa who spends all day on her own while her son is out at work.

"I've got to stay inside now," Louisa said.

"That's my life."

Louisa, in her eighties, is one of many older people who spend hours on their own at home, their days broken up only by carers and volunteer visitors. She said she enjoyed Annette coming.

"I like your hair," she laughed.

Other highlights in Louisa's week are a simple Friday fish and chip meal with another visitor and going out weekly shopping with her son.

The Wellington City Mission provides help for older people at home

The Wellington City Mission provides help for older people at home Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Age Concern runs a nationwide visitor programme which sees volunteers, some even in their nineties, buddying up with others who need companionship. Seventy percent of its clients are over the age of 80 and may be bereaved or have lost their mobility or one of their senses.

"We'll never pick up everybody," said Louise Rees who manages the programme.

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One in four New Zealanders will be over the age of 65 in twenty years time with many living in their homes. The health risk of loneliness and social isolation has been likened to smoking cigarettes 15 a day.

Ms Rees said it was time to talk to each other about how to deal with social isolation as the population ages. She pointed to the virtual retirement village movement which started in the United States in 2001 with Beacon Hill in Boston.

The grassroots non profit organisations which number more than 200 in the US allow people to age in their own homes. Members pay a fee and have access to social outings, exercise classes and stimulating talks, with subsidies for the less well-off.

They link up with drivers, tradespeople and household help as well as student volunteers to help with smartphones and computers.  The group aimed to look beyond conventional solutions, and have more control over their lives as they aged.

"We wanted to be active, taking care of ourselves and each other rather than being "taken care of," the Beacon Hill community states on its website.

The virtual village idea is being looked at in New Zealand.

Meanwhile New Zealand communities are doing a good job of providing group activities for their older citizens, according to Greypower, the group which lobbies on behalf of older people.

At the Waimea Menz Shed in in Nelson, the early risers are working on a new pair of doors and helping a local woman build a pen for her goat. The shed provides an outlet for older retired men who share their skills with others, make friends and do good for the community.

There had been spike in lonely and depressed older men coming to the workshop looking for company, Waimea Menz Shed chairman George Ingalls said.

The Waimea Menz Shed offers compansionship and skill-sharing

The Waimea Menz Shed offers compansionship and skill-sharing Photo: RNZ Insight/Sally Round

He thinks it is because at Waimea, the Menz Shed had started to take a softer approach, allowing people to do what they wanted rather than telling them what to do.

"People come and we sit and talk to them," he said.

"We find out what they want rather than rushing with an application form to join."

"They come out with negative words like 'if only,' 'I wish,' 'I wish,' 'I could,' " he said.

"Suddenly the picture emerges they're either lonely or depressed."

"What we've really tried to create here is an atmosphere where they can come, they can watch the TV, they can socialise - and I think that's important."

Smoko at Waimea Menz Shed

Smoko at Waimea Menz Shed Photo: RNZ Insight/Sally Round

James is a new member who enjoys popping in over smoko time. He arrived in Nelson in his caravan looking for better weather to help clear up some health issues. He said he felt immediately welcomed at the Menz Shed although the workshop dust kept him out of the workroom.

"It's a little bit like a monastery," he said laughing.

"We sit at these long tables and we communicate with each other. It's quite delightful really."

He said he did feel lonely, as do many men he had met.

"They all have the same problem, not knowing how to reach out to other people."

"We get conditioned into our roles and with men, it's very much, particularly in the European culture, hold back, act as if you're strong, as if you don't need help."

The smoko horn blows and other members pull up a chair with cups of coffee and snacks they've brought from home.

Tracey Martin

Tracey Martin Photo: NZ FIRST

"Got any scones?" they call out as a new member is introduced, telling him to pull up a chair and join in. The banter turns to developments at the shed and the need to cater for a more diverse range of interests like art.

Minister for seniors Tracey Martin said she wanted to see "out-of-the-box" thinking to address loneliness and other issues during consultations which had just opened on a new positive ageing strategy.

She said a pet-fostering service, discos for seniors and "granny gamers" - housebound seniors interacting in a digital world - were worth thinking about.

"I'd just like somebody to have that conversation and use technology in a way to breach some of these barriers around interacting."

A change in attitudes towards older people was also necessary, she said.

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