Individual and community connections prevent loneliness in older people

25 June 2019

What can our society do to tackle the epidemic of loneliness?

This was the topic of a recent public panel discussion led by Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier in the latest of his “Conversations with the Archbishop”.

The Most Reverend Dr Freier, Chair of the Brotherhood Board, was joined in conversation by Helen Page, Head of Community Aged Care at the Brotherhood of St Laurence; Patrick McGorry, Professor of Youth Mental Health at Melbourne University and co-founder of Headspace, and John Cleary, former ABC journalist.

The panellists said there were different types of loneliness and it was experienced by up to one in three people. Loneliness affects the immune system and the brain and the condition increases the risk of developing mental illness and dying prematurely. The panelist agreed that rapid sociological change and increasing digitalisation of communication were partly to blame for rising incidence of loneliness.

Ms Page said loneliness occurred across all age groups, but older people were particularly vulnerable due to cumulative losses experienced throughout their lives, including the death of friends and family members. Social isolation and rapid technological change across all areas of life has reduced opportunities for social interactions too, she said.

“There are a lot of interactions that older people once had, that they don’t have now. “For older people, rapid improvements in technology have been a double-edged sword. For some people who are adopters of technology it’s allowed them to connect with those who live far away, but for many older people who haven’t adopted the technology, it is a barrier. The interactions people you once had with the butcher and at the fruit shop don’t happen now in a big impersonal supermarket,” said Ms Page.

Archbishop Freier said that being in nature and strongly connected to a place was often a good way to prevent loneliness.

He said people needed to feel connected to others which gave them a sense of belonging “that may be to a person or people or an establishment”.

Archbishop Freier said there were more than 200 parishes in the Melbourne diocese, with more than 400 congregations, and the connections these gave communities was “enriching and life-giving”.

Professor McGorry said it was not about the number of human connections, but the quality that made the difference.

Full video of panel discussion