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All the lonely people: aged care facilities wanted for new study

“Eleanor Rigby died in a church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came.”

That is the story of lonely people according to The Beatles and was inspired, in part, by the old women Paul McCartney encountered on a housing estate in his native Liverpool.

“One in particular I used to visit, and I’d go shopping for her – you know, she couldn’t get out. So, I had that figure in my mind of a sort of lonely old lady,” he told GQ when discussing the song.

Loneliness is becoming such a problem in modern society that the UK has appointed a Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch.

Crouch was appointed to the position following a report from the Jo Cox commission on loneliness (named after murdered MP and loneliness champion Jo Cox) that found that more than nine million people in Britain often or always feel lonely.

This has been seen as a PR stunt by the Brexit-plagued Prime Minister Theresa May, but the UK may be onto something.

As reported by Time Magazine last year, former US surgeon general Vivek Murthy calls loneliness a “growing health epidemic”.

In a Harvard Business Review essay, he recalls a study that said social isolation is “associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day”.

In an Australian context, one in four of us have reported feeling lonely once a week. While one in two sometimes or always feel alone, with 30 per cent reporting that they don’t belong to a friendship group.

Simon Tatz, Australian Medical Association director of public health, has recently written about the subject.

He cites a Lifeline survey from 2016 that found more than 80 per cent of Australians believe society is becoming a lonelier place.

Tatz also points to research that finds loneliness as a risk factor for early death and “that feelings of loneliness can increases the likelihood of earlier death by 26 per cent”.

The National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) is trying to tackle the subject and see whether loneliness can influence symptoms of depression, anxiety or loneliness in people living in residential aged care.

According to NARI about half of people living in residential aged care facilities may have significant depression symptoms.

The project is providing trained and supervised volunteers who will visit residents weekly for four months in residential aged care facilities.

Professor Colleen Doyle, who is leading the NHMRC-funded project, said: “The research question is, ‘Where is there extra social support on a regular basis?’ In this form, we’ll reduce symptoms of depression or loneliness. But this type of social support is called befriending, and it is actually mentioned in current clinical guidelines or treatments of depression.

“The current clinical guidelines recommend that this kind of social support can help people with mild depression to assist with their symptoms. That finding has never been tested in a residential age care facility setting. So that’s why we’re trying to do this,” she said.

The aged care residents who enrol in this controlled study have three interviews with their researcher to gauge levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness among other issues, and the befriending will then be the method used to treat any loneliness felt.

“Befriending involves having a conversation with a person about everyday topics and events in a friendly way without discussing health problems or emotions,” Doyle said.

The research is already underway and, so far, volunteers and residents are happy with the progress. However, NARI is still looking for more aged care facilities to come on board.

“We’ve got lots of volunteers. So, what we don’t have at the moment are people living in nursing homes to be involved in the study. We’ve got a couple of age care providers in Victoria, but we are looking for some more,” Doyle said.

“From the age care providers’ point of view, there’s very little burden on them in being involved in this project because we provide the volunteers, we set up the training and supervision.

“We obviously follow all of our health and safety requirements from the aged care providers’ point of view, and work with them to make sure that the volunteer is working within their guidelines for their particular facility.

“We are interested in signing up around 500 residents in Melbourne and regional and rural Victoria who are interested in helping with the research.”

The Beatles asked where all the lonely people come from? People blame the internet or social media, but in reality it is hard to pin down one reason.

Hopefully with ministers for loneliness and befriending research we might go a way to helping the lonely people feel less so.

If your facility is interested in taking part, head to the NARI webpage.

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  1. Good morning
    I am interested in knowing more about decreasing loneliness in aged care facilities
    Could you email me some information
    Thank you

  2. Annette Hefford

    “All the lonely people. Where do they all come from.”

    Many years ago, I was asked to fulfil a promise that my twin sister was to carry out but because of circumstance for her, there was a change of plan. The promise was to share an old lady’s home so that she could leave hospital and return to her house where she had lived for many years with her husband who had just recently died. And I said “yes, of course, I would take over the promise.” How hard could that be?

    Well, as hard as any task could be adjusting to another’s abode. And the reason the lady in this story was in hospital was because she had disseminated sclerosis. Not that I knew anything about disseminated sclerosis or could even spell it in those days or had been around anyone who had such a strange named illness.

    Because the lady was bedridden and lived only in the downstairs area. My husband and I moved into the main bedroom of the house which initially looked like the sleeping quarters of Dickens’ Miss Haversham, The cobwebs floated down from the ceiling being undisturbed for many years.

    It was obvious by the raised floor levels that she had used a wheelchair, but not anymore. And I was told that a nurse would be attending to her (needs?) everyday, so I could continue to work full time, leaving this lady to be alone most of her day. Alone, bedridden and bed bound by the tightly swathed sheets, tucked in to keep her leg muscles from contracting in spasms and causing more problems than my legs would ever understand. And the silence of the nights would be broken by a sad moaning of “Oh! My legs. Oh! My legs,” when the tightened sheet loosened and the legs spasmed and the pain worsened.

    Sleepless nights followed until the lady became too ill for the nurses to care for her and she went back into hospital. You might ask where is her family? And I can guess, “Around, somewhere.” But they didn’t visit the cranky old lady at home nor in hospital. Lonely people are not top of anyone’s visiting list, are they?

    Eventually this lady died. One can only assume it was a release for her and like Eleanor Rigby, the vicar and I attended the graveside. No one else came.

    But they came to see what was left in the house and picked over the lady’s belongings like the vultures they were. An insult to vultures really because they didn’t need any of this lady’s possessions to survive. Just simple greed. And they were happy to take my stuff as well, had I not been attending to their pickings.

    “All the lonely people. Where do they all come from?”

    Well, here had lived a lonely lady. I didn’t know if she came from anywhere, except she lived or existed in this place, amidst others but isolated. There was a church connection but a hazy one because I didn’t see it. I suppose her “church” could have been the hospital for it seemed to do its best for her. And her name? Well, I confess, I do not remember her name. Yes, of course, it could have been Eleanor, couldn’t it? But I think not.

    And I thought very little at that time to understand what was actually happening in this lady’s life or mine. I was twenty years old. Not much of an excuse. I was just starting out on my own journey, already isolated and realising how cloistered my mind could be.

    I understood nothing. A great candidate for a “lonely person” label.
    Loneliness does not belong to the elderly or any age group in particular but it does become hardwork and full of negatives when age becomes entangled and hinders connections with others.

    We could choose to be aware of our singularity at an earlier age and if not taught whilst young, we can take responsibility for our connections with others and learn about keeping in touch with family, friends and community before we also become part of the Beatles’ song.