Meaningful goals help solve loneliness

International research estimates that 20% of seniors experience some form of loneliness.  In New Zealand that’s up to 140 thousand elderly.

Vanessa Burholt is the Professor of Gerontology and Director of the Centre for Innovative Ageing (CIA) at Swansea University; and Director of the pan-Wales Centre for Ageing and Dementia Research (CADR). She is currently in New Zealand with Professor Thomas Scharf from Newcastle University meeting with Government Ministries, University Researchers, Councils and Age Care organisations to share her research on loneliness and promote the welfare of older people.

Loneliness has a significant impact on health outcomes. Studies indicates that loneliness has the same level of impact on health as that of smoking and even more impact than obesity or inactivity. Loneliness is identified as risk factor in a number of health conditions including cardiovascular disease, depression and cognitive decline.

Professor Burholt works with a large number of senior groups in the UK and says understanding the complexity of loneliness is the key to making effective change.

“We shouldn’t blame an individual for being lonely. There are many reasons why it’s hard to overcome, from shyness, a lack of money, through to cognitive impairment. Often it’s the physical environment which is stopping older people leaving their home. They may have transport problems or be scared if they live in a neighbour that’s changed. It’s about how we can intervene to remove those barriers that will make a difference.”

“It’s easy to think the solution is to go and meet people but social connection isn’t necessarily the cure for loneliness. It’s the emotional closeness and quality of relationships that matter.

“You can’t replace decade long friendships or the loss of a long term partner but there are other things you can do. Start up a conversation about what’s important to that person. The place to make social connections with others has to have meaning for them. Find out what things they like to do and how you can help facilitate that."

Withdrawing from society isn’t a natural part of ageing unless you choose it.

"Older people with a disability or dementia can be reluctant to enter public spaces because they feel stigmatised and embarrassed. We all have a role to play in reducing the prejudices and discrimination in society. It starts with patience and helping people who need help to interact with others.”

Professor Vanessa Burholt

OPERAT (Older Persons External Residential Assessment Tool) is a simple questionnaire co-designed with older people in Wales that they can complete by observation to determine if an area is suitable for the physical, cognitive and visual needs of older people. OPERAT is about to be piloted in New Zealand in a joint project with Massey University and Grey Power.

“The response to loneliness and isolation are different in every area. OPERAT is an easy tool to help residents and local authorities identify areas where the environment is having a negative impact on the elderly. Simple things like as removing rubbish, graffiti and fixing footpaths can make a real difference to older people,” says Professor Burholt.