June 3, 2020
Did you hear it? The huge sigh of relief as New Zealand moved from level 3 to level 2, and then to level 1. It could be heard from cafes in Christchurch to shops in Auckland and on talk back radio all over the country.
But, if you were listening very carefully, if you really concentrated, you might have heard something else… the quiet disappointment of people for whom level 2 and level 1 have made little difference at all. That’s because, for a lot of older New Zealanders, the move to level two offered scant relief from the loneliness they continue to feel. Many kiwis didn’t have visitors before lockdown, they didn’t have them during lockdown and they won’t have them after lockdown either.
Two years ago loneliness was getting a lot of attention. All the major NZ papers were running stories about loneliness. Stuff put additional focus on the issue through their “Human Touch” series that launched in September 2018. Now in 2020, lockdown has put loneliness back in the spotlight.
According to Louise Rees from Age Concern we’ve “known for a long time that loneliness is a health issue,”. Mounting evidence from around the world and here in New Zealand has drawn people’s attention to loneliness, which is now widely recognised as a leading cause of early death, even worse than obesity.
Researchers have found that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships. This might go some way to explaining why the UK recently appointed a Minister For Loneliness. The newly established ministry aims to develop policies that reduce social isolation and mitigate the potential health costs.
Here in New Zealand, health researcher and senior lecturer in medicine Hamish Jamieson suggested several ways to fight loneliness including “information technology for the elderly”. His co-author Sally Keeling talks passionately about the need to de-stigmatise loneliness. She points out that we must be careful not to blame people who are lonely because in many cases they simply don’t have the opportunities to create meaningful connections. In an interview with Stuff she said “we’ve got to build up ways to make it better for everyone and that can come through ways of facilitating connection.”
A 2018 study by Age UK titled “All The Lonely People” found that 7% of people in the UK over the age of 50, often feel lonely. A further 24% say they felt lonely some of the time. In the US, a national survey by the American Association of Retired Persons found that 24% of people older than 70 years were lonely.
In New Zealand 20% of elderly identify as lonely, according to a study of 72,000 seniors conducted by the University of Otago.
Jamieson, who lead that study, draws a clear link between loneliness and health. “Interactions with friends and neighbours are important and can help older people maintain their sense of independence and sustain the ability to look after themselves. In contrast, loneliness can make many health conditions worse,
Finding solutions to loneliness is highly personal. Meaningful social interactions on a weekly basis will alleviate feelings of loneliness but for elderly people this isn’t always easy.
A sense of community and friendship is a major reason why many people move into a retirement village. Moving into a village with lots of people around might seem like a positive social move (and it often is) but in some cases it can’t compensate for the loss of deeper relationships built up over years in the community.
Spritely keeps seniors connected with frequent village updates and regular village activities that are easy for residents to book and manage themselves. We also keep seniors in touch with free video calling. Spritely users report feeling less lonely when they have Spritely at their fingertips.