A recent article in The Press highlighted the issue of “social isolation” in the elderly in Christchurch. The article estimated that at least 7000 elderly people in Christchurch are living in chronically lonely conditions where they sometimes don’t see people for days.
This issue is not isolated to Christchurch. Depression in the elderly is in the top five for mental illnesses in New Zealand according to the Mental Health Foundation.
I believe one of the reasons for this is that the close relatives of elderly persons seem to congratulate themselves if they don’t put their family member “in a home”. A stigma that is a hangover from the resthomes of 30 years ago still exists around aged care, and relatives who otherwise keep their distance alleviate their guilt over neglect by boasting that they’d never do the “unthinkable” and send a loved one to a resthome.
Yet, in the majority of cases that I’ve seen, what family members are really doing by encouraging an elderly relative to live alone and “independently” is sentencing them to the social isolation and chronic loneliness that has been highlighted as a problem in Christchurch.
Elderly people living alone in the community might get a visit from a relative once a week if they are lucky, but generally it’s less than this. They might get a phone call twice a week from a caring son or daughter, but what happens for the rest of the week? Sometimes nothing. Imagine days going by before having any meaningful contact with the outside world – this is a reality for many elderly people living on their own.
There are obvious health and safety concerns with an elderly person living on their own, such as the risk of taking a fall or not eating properly. The bigger concern though, is that we are creating an epidemic of loneliness and neglect in a sector of the population that is growing all the time and living longer.
As The Press article points out, elderly persons don’t want to be “tacked on” to their families. They want to live their own independent, sociable lives, with dignity. Modern residential facilities for the elderly afford exactly these opportunities. Residents get to live as independently as they wish to while still living in community with people who are at a similar stage of life to them with similar interests and goals. They also have access to healthcare, hot cooked meals and other support services as they need them, and there is always someone looking out for them and checking in on them.
This village living approach is a far superior alternative to the isolated, so-called “independent” living that is causing misery and heartache for up to 10 per cent of the elderly in New Zealand according to Age Concern.
It’s time we woke up in this country and stepped up to the needs of our aging population, which are only getting ever greater. Out of sight, out of mind is an unacceptable attitude to have towards the elderly. By bringing aged persons into community living, we are giving this group in society a new lease on life and a chance to enjoy their golden years, and this is what they deserve. It is the way a caring, compassionate society should treat its elderly – with dignity and respect, not with indifference and neglect.