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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 22 October, 2014

Column: Is loneliness in old age inevitable? Not in a caring society.

Everyone needs to feel wanted and remembered, but many older people are being left isolated because of rapid economic, social and technological changes, writes Anne Dempsey.

Anne Dempsey

AS WE ALL know, people are living longer, and the 65s+ now number one in nine of the population. In Positive Ageing Week, (September 27 – October 5) this a cause of celebration. The value of older people to family, friends and wider society is immense. Older people are still giving in their own communities as parents, grandparents, friends, neighbours, leaders, workers, volunteers, mentors, community activists, and continuing to contribute to society as a whole. And they have a lot to give. Experience drawn from a lifetime of work, learning and family life is needed in today’s Ireland.

Many older parents, are continuing to support adult children through financial help and childcare arrangements. Many towns and villages would have no parish council, no tidy towns committee, no fundraisers for the local football were it not for the organising ability of older people.

‘Adding life to the years’

But while we have succeeded in adding years to the life, we have not been so successful in adding life to the years. While many older people are still embedded in the heart of their family and community, others have become increasingly isolated. It is a sad irony that in an age where people are more connected than ever through social networking and communication technology, so many older people in Ireland feel socially marooned.

Around 136,000 older people in Ireland live alone according to latest figures from the CSO. And while loneliness is different from being alone, many older people – already isolated through bereavement, disability or an isolated location – can find their solitary lives to be particularly difficult. Loneliness is a state of mind, characterised by feelings of sadness, desolation or even despair. We humans are social creatures, and a daily routine entrenched in unsought isolation makes for an unhealthy lifestyle, saps morale and can nudge towards depression and mental illness. Loneliness has actually been likened to cancer and heart disease in its corrosive effect on the body, mind and spirit.

The need to hear a friendly voice

Many older people in Ireland today cope with their loneliness by contacting the Senior Help Line. Senior Help Line is a confidential listening service for older people by trained older volunteers for the price of a local call anywhere in Ireland. It has been described as a primary health care service contributing significantly to older well being. Senior Help Line received over 28,000 calls from older callers throughout Ireland last year. People call to give meaning to their day, to know that someone is there, to hear a friendly voice, to tell us of their ups and downs, to say goodnight.

Some callers are lonely because they have been bereaved, because they have few family and friends left alive, because they are shy and find it difficult to mix. Some miss family who have moved abroad in recent years in our new wave of emigration. Other callers find it difficult to adjust to retirement and the loss of work colleagues it can involve. Senior Help Line trained volunteers support by listening empathetically and discussing caller options. When people feel very alone, being listened to can mean a lot.

The erosion of local communities

A 2011 report by the Society of St Vincent DePaul into loneliness linked some older loneliness to the erosion of local communities and community infrastructure. The rural post office, the bank, the corner shop, the fair and the livestock mart were all part of the fabric of society contributing socially as well as commercially to the way people of all ages came together. Allied to this, a general decline in neighbourliness is another concern.

Technology, which can be such a benefit for us, can also be a huge hurdle to overcome. As more services migrate online, those without online skills become more isolated, and although this is not a problem exclusive to older people, it is more prevalent among this group.

Is loneliness in old age inevitable? The third age of life has the potential to open many new doors that were otherwise closed in times past, and there are many ways to combat loneliness. These can include participation in education programmes, (yes, you can teach old dogs new tricks), volunteering, taking up a new hobby, and learning a new skill. Think of painting, swimming, dancing, writing, gardening, joining your local active retirement association, becoming a voluntary driver, DIY, crafts, reading, finding a new challenge, and much, more.

However, for some people, combating loneliness it is not a simple matter of going out and joining a club. If they could, they would. Often what has caused the withdrawal from society has deeper roots including fears, shyness, introversion, and lack of confidence. Addressing these roots is the first step to breaking the barriers down.

You can make a difference

This is where you and I come in. Society as a whole has a part to play in combating loneliness. Those of us with an older neighbour, friend, relative living alone could take time to phone or visit often. A regular half-hour visit could make a difference in helping someone feel wanted and remembered. If you have an elderly neighbour, be sure to check in on them once in a while in case they require assistance or even just a friendly chat.

Government, too, has a role to play. Many of the changes in society have been led by the state. Closing post offices and Garda stations have had have unintended consequences. The loss of rural shops, banks and pubs impoverishes local communities. The state must recognise that rural isolation is a problem, and providing a cohesive social environment is almost as important as providing good health care and a viable income.

A cohesive, inclusive society is good for us all

A life with frequent human ordinary interaction has the potential to be a life rich in connection, engagement and belonging. This connecting bond can stave off depression and other illnesses. If someone asks if you would you want to be alone when you get older, the answer will probably be ‘no’.

Most of us fear being alone, and people of every generation have the opportunity to prevent the fears of older people becoming a reality. A cohesive, inclusive society is good for us all. An age-friendly society is friendly to all ages. And if altruism doesn’t make us act, perhaps a degree of self-interest will. If we begin taking steps now, we are more likely to have the society we want when we are older, benefitting older people today – and tomorrow. And this week, Positive Ageing Week, is a good place to start.

Anne Dempsey is Head of Communications with Third Age. A journalist, counsellor and trainer, she is the author of ‘The Retirement Handbook’, and has worked in the NGO sector for a number of years.

Senior Help Line, LoCall 1850 440 444, open every day of the year from 10am till 10pm.

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