By building stronger community connections that make it easier to find new friends, we can all play a part in reducing loneliness. It’s about giving everyone the opportunity to meet up in a natural way.
It’s sad how often older people say they don’t want to be a burden or that they feel lonely or isolated. Often the person thinks there is little they can do about this. They may have built defensive walls around themselves or retreated from social settings so as not to impose on others. The result could be a breakdown in social connections, unhappiness, poor health, and a reduced length of life. We believe our society wants better things for our older people. There are solutions.
You are the person you are due to the circumstances that you have faced through life, your genetic makeup, and many other factors. It is likely you have also had significant losses including the loss of someone with whom you had a close emotional connection and maybe even a loss of your own identity and purposefulness.
Social isolation and loneliness are not the same thing. Social isolation is about a lack of social contact whereas loneliness is more complex and related to a mismatch between what you are wanting from your relationships and what you are getting – you can be lonely in a crowd. It therefore follows that loneliness probably won’t be ‘cured’ by joining a group, but social isolation may be.
The environment where these problems are flourishing has been a long time in the making. Our Western lifestyle has focused on the individual and our rights, often at the expense of connections with others. Families are commonly scattered, eroding intergenerational support. Our health may limit our ability to get out and about. Even our ability to access technology can help or hinder our social networks. The good news is society is always changing and together we can help shape it. Ideas for building stronger community connections include:
- Supporting community initiatives that encourage people of all ages to get together. This gives everyone the opportunity to meet up in a natural way.
- Removing the obstacles that keep many people feeling stuck at home. Examples include improved street design, public transport and access to buildings and public spaces.
- Supporting services that empower people to live meaningful lives where they can be involved, contributing, and valued.
Advice for family and friends
- Contact your older relatives and neighbours, invite them to things you are interested in and treat them as you would anyone else.
- Introduce them to others and help them create a wider network of contacts. Mixing only with other older people often has limited appeal.
- Do things that include all age groups such as visiting the library, going out for a coffee or a movie (do not assume they can or cannot pay themselves), or watching the kids play sport (take a seat). Discuss local issues. Ask for their opinion, especially about lessons they’ve learned or things they’ve changed their mind about.
- Giving and receiving support in any relationship is important. Being only on the receiving end makes people feel uncomfortable, which is why they often decline the offer. Turn the tables and ask them to do something for you (make sure it matches their ability).
- Whatever you do, make it as easy and natural as possible.