Loneliness and social isolation can threaten the wellbeing of older people. They are particularly vulnerable due to deteriorating physical health, the death of spouses, partners, and friends, being more likely to live alone, and difficulty in getting around. A wide range of health outcomes are associated with loneliness and social isolation including depression, cardiovascular disease, cognitive function and even mortality.
Data on Loneliness
Looking on the bright side – in the New Zealand General Social (GSS) Survey 2016 (the most recent published results) only 15% of people aged 65-74 and 16.5% of those aged 75 or older said that they had felt lonely some, most of all of the time, in previous four weeks. These were lower levels than for people under age 35. Looking at this more positively, 85% did not feel lonely . Perhaps these older people should think of ways to communicate with lonely teenagers this Christmas!
Much of what constitutes “Christmas”, in the popular view, is contact with friends and family. Here again, older people do not do too badly. In the 2016 GSS survey, 70% of people aged 65 plus had face-to-face contact with family and friends at least weekly; and 80% had non-face-to-face contact. This would mean telephone calls, email, video calls and other form of digital communication.
There has been a significant growth in non-face-to-face contact with friends in recent years, for all age groups, probably linked with digital device use. The figures decrease with age – 94% of respondents aged 15-24 said they had non-face-to-face contact with friends in 2016, and over 80% of the 25-44 age groups. The figures for older people were lower, but still significant, 71% for people 65-74 and 66% for those 75 and over.
Do people have enough contact?
People will vary in the amount of contact they need. There are the gregarious and the reclusive. In GSS 2012, 81% of people aged 65-74 said they had enough contact with family and 84% of those 75 plus. In the same survey, 87% of people aged 65-74 said they had enough contact with friends and 86% of those 75 plus. These figures were higher than for any other age group. So it seems that most older people are happy with the amount of contact they have.
Overall Life Satisfaction
Perhaps we can sum up the situation by looking at information on Overall Life Satisfaction. In every GSS survey since 2008 the percentages in the “very satisfied” category have increased for the older age groups and are higher than for younger people. In 2016-17 three out of every four people aged 65 plus indicated 8 or more on a scale there 0 is completely dissatisfied and 10 is completely satisfied.
But although this information suggests that the majority of older people in NZ do not describe themselves as lonely, have regular contact with family and friends and are satisfied with the extent of this contact, we must not forget the minority who suffer from social isolation and loneliness.
What can be done about it?
There are a variety of “interventions” designed to combat loneliness and social isolation among older people .
Social facilitation interventions are designed to promote social interaction on the basis of mutual benefit to participants. Many are group-based activities, such as friendship clubs, shared interest groups, and day care centres.
Psychological therapies may also be group activities facilitate by trained therapists. They involve cognitive and social support interventions – such as humour and reminiscence.
Health and social care provision activities often involve health and social care professionals and may take place either in the community or in residential care. The “Eden alternative” is an example of the latter.
Animal interventions. Pets can provide social support and companionship. Evaluations have shown that both a robotic dog and a living dog could help reduce loneliness, but there was a higher level of attachment to a living animal, as one would expect.
Befriending interventions. Age Concern’s Accredited Visitors scheme is an example, providing one-to-one support for lonely people, by volunteers. Telephone projects can also generate a sense of belonging and ‘knowing there’s a friend out there’
Leisure/skill development interventions. These can include gardening programmes (indoor gardening programmes for rest home residents), computer/internet use, holidays and sports. Productive activities (e.g. reading or engaging in hobbies) have been shown to reduce loneliness, while passive activities (such as watching TV or listening to radio) do not.
What makes interventions successful?
Three common characteristics of effective interventions to combat loneliness are –
• Being adapted to a local context;
• Having service users involved in their design and implementation;
• Involving productive engagement rather than passive activities.
But a key underlying factor will always be the individual’s own social network, which brings us back to the figures which I set out above.
All of this can come to the fore at a time of year when the joys of social interaction are emphasised (probably too much given all the commercial hype about Christmas which is being heaped upon us). As the Minister for Seniors says in her recent newsletter –
If you’re anything like me, you’ll now be looking forward to spending some time with your families, and I hope, having a relaxing Christmas.
 This does not mean that loneliness among younger people is of no concern.
 This information is not available for the last two GSS surveys.
 Clare Gardiner, Gideon Geldenhuys and Merryn Gott (2018) Interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness among older people: an integrative review. Health and Social Care in the Community, Vol.26, 2, pages 147-157.