One in five older New Zealanders is lonely, according to grim research out of the University of Otago.

The study, funded by the Government’s Ageing Well National Science Challenge, found that of the 72,000 older people surveyed, more than 15,000 identified as lonely. Older Asian people were most likely to be lonely, while Pacific Islanders were the least lonely group, according to the study.

“Interactions with friends and neighbours are important and can help older people maintain their sense of independence and sustain the ability to look after themselves. In contrast, loneliness can make many health conditions worse, including pain depression, anxiety and respiratory conditions,” said lead researcher Dr Hamish Jamieson.

Interestingly, other research shows that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to loneliness. The 2015 report, “Promising approaches to reducing loneliness and isolation” produced jointly by Age UK and The Campaign to End Loneliness concluded that there are many, varied solutions needed for an effective response to a very personal problem. It notes that loneliness is a very complex and individual experience and calls on local authorities to provide access to a full menu of interventions that help those who are lonely.

Day programmes and visiting services are two popular interventions in New Zealand.

Presbyterian Support Upper South Island chief executive Vaughan Milner noted in a recent newsletter that their Enliven day programmes were about recognising that relationships aren’t built in a day or even in the short Christmas period.

“Relationships take time and consistency to flourish. That’s why every week, all through the year, people come together and deepen their relationships and grow in their connection with one another.

Through building up these networks, older people can go into the Christmas season stronger than ever with a whole community of others who are looking out for their wellbeing.”

He points to the Enliven HomeShare service as a good example of a programme that brings older people with shared interests together in the comfort of a host’s private home or community facility. Small groups share a meal and conversation, and activities chosen by the group. HomeShare hosts and volunteers are trained to support the needs of older people, in particular, those relating to memory loss. They also receive regular support from an Enliven co-ordinator.

In 2016, the Enliven HomeShare service supported 459 people to build connections in their community. They have around seven services in Christchurch alone, due to the gaps in that area.

Another programme making a difference is Age Concern’s Accredited Visiting Service. This is a befriending service that provides regular visits to older people who would like more company. Volunteers meet with an older person for about an hour each week to enjoy conversation and shared interests and activities.

Age Concern is collaborating on the Ageing Well Challenge’s social isolation project to look at how their Accredited Visiting Service can better meet the needs of New Zealand’s multi-cultural population.

The project, which is anticipated to finish in March this year, has the potential to make an important scientific contribution to the understanding of social isolation of older people’s health and wellbeing, ensuring that the findings have an immediate impact upon the lives of older New Zealanders.

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