From the desk of Esther Perriam….

When Sarah asked me to write a post on ‘Communities and Friendship’ I was hoping to be able to come up with something cheery and to be able to tell a good story.

But the more I thought on it – the more I felt this was perhaps a more complex topic than I’d first thought.

Services like Retirement Villages offer a great place for likeminded older adults to enjoy a community and I know all of the research shows that people who live in villages are overwhelmingly happy – in fact the RVA ‘s net promoter score is practically off the charts! This sort of research doesn’t lie – Retirement Villages, for those who live in them, are a perfect example of a community that older people love.

But for some the financial commitment required to enter into in many retirement village means that this isn’t an option. Then there’s those for whom the idea of being in a village, for one reason or another, just doesn’t appeal. How are those people making meaningful connections in their community?

There are too many sad stories of older people who die behind closed doors and remain undiscovered for too long. Stories that speak of the loneliness that some older people experience despite being in and of a ‘community’. As I live in Christchurch and we have had some recent “Community Strengthening Sessions” (read: earthquakes), and I work in a business which has older people at the heart of what we do, you’d think it’s easy for me to identify older people in my street, in my neighbourhood, in my community. But I know there will be people I’ve missed, people I didn’t know where there when I moved in, people who just don’t move in a time and space where I can see them. This just isn’t good enough.

My heart screams for an answer to the basic question – how can someone not be missed?

And it doesn’t take too long to come up with answers – declining health for many older people can mean declining mobility and with declining mobility people just lose connections – church groups, craft groups, a visit to the pub or the RSA; places where you are someone to someone – become fewer and fewer until they stop. While I’m sure there are some well-meaning offers of assistance I imagine these too dry up and before long it’s just easier not to go.

Thankfully there are services like Age Concern and many large and small community groups all around the country who try to penetrate this bubble of loneliness, but somehow, they seem to only ever scrape the surface. Many of them operate on the smell of an oily rag and cannot offer more to the very people they know are at risk. We end up in triage situations, where the most urgent get some help and the others get nothing.

Our current system of funding these services through grants and scrapings from the government table just isn’t the answer. Organisations end up ‘scrapping it out’ for the same money. Great services are effectively fighting each other over the same pot of money. In a world where the strong win I believe this leads to further issues of ‘patch protection’ and understandably so – why would you endorse another great service or pilot project if it is likely to mean that organisation gets the money that your organisation needs to continue. For most organisations each grant is linked to someone’s pay packet – the conflict is immense!

The real question then needs to be what needs to change? Do we find more money for services to pick up those who have slipped through the cracks? Or do we look back at ourselves and see that the change may have to come from us? Do we need to reconsider what it means to be part of a community, how we interact in a community?

For me there is no easy answer – I know that to get more money for these services then it’s one of two options – either rob Peter to pay Paul – never a good idea when I consider how little there is to go around. Do I want longer waiting lists at hospitals, longer waits to get roads repaired…??? Or to increase the size of the pot we could increase the tax rate. Anyone who takes home a pay packet knows that you look at those tax dollars and imagine all you could have done with that unrealised money – would I like that figure to be higher again? And even if I did, would everyone be OK with the extra money being spend on lonely elderly people – I just know someone is going to (justifiably) argue that the money could be spent elsewhere (and we revert back to option one).

Then there’s the idea that we should own this problem. That the community should be looking after its own – and whilst I ideologically want this to be the answer the reality is something else – I’m a perfect example of why this just doesn’t work. I’m a member of one of those households where both adults work full time, we have two children who are demanding of our time when we’re not working and we have the usual raft of first world problems like home maintenance and social BBQs to attend. All of which means that we’ve got no time and no energy to even look over the fence to see if we should be supporting someone else. Sad isn’t it?

So, hit me with your thoughts – what’s the solution for those older people who, for whatever reason, can’t connect with their community in a meaningful way; where someone would miss them if they didn’t make contact? How can we offer a real community to all our elders?


About Esther Perriam

Esther Perriam
Esther Perriam is a Director of Eldernet. She’s worked in the business for over 15 years and has been lucky to visit many of the older person’s services around the country. She’s never short of an opinion on…pretty much anything. Esther really loves reading and you’ll see plenty of book reviews authored by her. As a mother of two children there’s not much free time but if there is she also enjoys cooking (for grown-ups, not the kids!) and anything beach related in her spare time. Esther has presented at conferences around New Zealand and is happy to be contacted in regards to speaking or presenting at your event.

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  1. Avatar

    As always there’s never a simple answer, especially concerning people because we all have such differing needs and personalities. There are people who prefer their own company, and would just hate ‘visitors’ checking on them, and sometimes purposely alienate people so that they can be left alone – all well and good until you get ill or have a fall. Then there are people who become ‘ needy’ and demand the constant attention of a well meaning neighbour, phoning them at all hours and feigning illness to get them to visit. Then of course those that don’t want to ‘worry or bother’ people when they are so busy, and they suffer in silence when there is a problem. I think as in many things in life it is down to compromise – let people know you are there in emergencies if they prefer to be alone, and tell them you will come and check if you notice curtains closed, mail not collected, but otherwise leave them be.
    I did once experience a needy neighbour and found it very difficult when she was waiting for me on the doorstep each night when I got home from work, but I got advice and told her that I would be there for emergencies and would look in on her once a week, and then gave her lots of contacts for community groups etc, and the situation greatly improved. So I suppose it’s all down to getting to know someone and reaching a compromise on how much help they need and how much you can give without any one getting annoyed!

  2. jessica

    Well said Esther, it’s a sad reality that I don’t like to admit exists as much as what it does. Loneliness is a very real dilemma in our communities not only for the elderly but for many who also for what ever reasons can’t access support. I also have an ideological viewpoint where I’d like to think that ultimately if we were all just looking out for each other a bit more perhaps by being a bit less busy then loneliness could be overcome. Much easier said then done however.