While loneliness is a big predictor of entering aged care facilities, living alone and loneliness don’t always go together, says Richard Scrase, researcher and gerontology nurse specialist.

This was amongst the preliminary findings from a research project, jointly sponsored by the University of Canterbury (UC) and the South Island Alliance, Using interRAI data to identify social isolation and loneliness in older people. The findings were presented to health care professionals this month.

“You could assume that living with others means you won’t be lonely, but the interRAI data shows it’s not that clear,” says Richard, who focused on factors associated with social isolation and loneliness among those aged 50-74, alongside third year UC statistics and microbiology student, Meital Bar.

“While over 65 is traditionally associated with ageing, among the biggest challenges to our health system is the prevalence of long-term chronic health conditions, and health inequity. As we place more emphasis on a preventative, restorative approach to health, the younger the cohort you look at, the more chance you have to turn it around and make a difference.”

Research analysis is carried out each year by UC statistics and mathematics students as a part of their Summer Research Scholarship programme, led by Dr Hamish Jamieson, geriatrician and UC senior lecturer in medicine. InterRAI data is combined with other health data sets and the findings are used to inform health service development. The projects are completed in conjunction with the New Zealand Health and Ageing Group, and the South Island Alliance’s Health of Older People Service Level Alliance (HOPSLA).

About 50 representatives from across the health sector attended the presentation via videoconference sites in the South Island and Wellington, on 8 February. Other speakers included research fellow Ulrich Bergler, who presented on living arrangements and loneliness in those aged over 65, and Dr Jamieson talked about the impact of social isolation and loneliness on patient outcomes in those over 65.

Loneliness and social isolation is a huge issue in New Zealand and internationally, says Dr Jamieson.

“It’s a complicated subject and while analysis showed loneliness was a big predictor for entering Aged Residential Care, there are a range of different variables impacting on this. Solving loneliness is more complex than just providing for certain living arrangements, because it’s not directly correlated to living alone.”

He says understanding the needs of ageing people is increasingly complex and having advanced statistical techniques helps identify what patients’ needs are and how to better understand them, “in order to align services as best as we can, to improve patient outcomes.”

Professor Jennifer Brown, of the UC School of Mathematics and Statistics, facilitates project work associated with interRAI. She says it’s really important for students and the university to be involved with health data. “This is a great way for students to develop their research skills and seed their enthusiasm for work in the health sector.”

The interRAI (International Residential Assessment Instrument) Homecare is a comprehensive electronic assessment tool which allows individualised care plans to be provided to help support older adults to remain well in their own homes.

Caption: from left: Ulrich Bergler, Richard Scrase, Meital Bar, Dr Hamish Jamieson, and Professor Jennifer Brown.

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