By 2050 there will be more people over 60 than there will be children in the world.1 Due to medical advances and improvements in the social determinants of health, older populations will continue to grow. In Asia-Pacific alone, where half the world’s elderly population lives the numbers are set to grow from 414 million in 2010 to 1.25 billion by 2050. 1,2
The state in Australia
In Australia, the average life expectancy is now over 80 for both men and women and increasing – the over 65s are now the fastest growing demographic in the country. 3 A new picture of demand for community aged care services is emerging, driven by greater absolute numbers of older people within the population, and an increased preference to continue to live and receive support within the home.
The social isolation
Research has shown that lonely people are 60 percent more likely to use emergency services and are twice as likely to be admitted to residential aged care. 4,5 The health outcomes are dramatic. Feeling socially isolated can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, increase morning rises in the stress hormone cortisol, alter gene expression in immune cells, increase depression and lower overall subjective well-being. 4,5,6
Those older people who experience ‘extreme loneliness’ are up to 26 percent more likely to die prematurely. 4 A sense of connectedness to local communities, and of belonging to others, is an important antidote to loneliness for many older people.7 Lone person households in Australia are predicted to grow from 2.1 million households in 2011 to close to 3.4 million households in 2036 and with this trend we predict a rise in the cases of social isolation and extreme loneliness. 1,8
There is an antidote to social isolation and its social cohesion. While there is no one definition of social cohesion, most focus on the same principles – ‘the willingness of members of a society to co-operate with each other in order to survive and prosper’. Social cohesion spans the areas of social relations, task relations, perceived unity and emotion. By working towards inclusion, participation, access, and a sense of belonging we can reduce the effects of social isolation and loneliness perhaps even providing a preventative measure long before a cure is required.
A timely initiative to combat social isolation and create social cohesion – spanning generations and uniting neighbourhoods is Queensland’s Care Army.
“Just like we banded together as the Mud Army through the 2011 floods – we need to band together right now. To care for all Queenslanders during the coronavirus outbreak, especially those most at risk: Queenslanders over 65 and over 50 if they’re of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent.
The Care Army is about bringing Queenslanders together to lend a hand to seniors and people most at-risk during this pandemic, while continuing to practice social distancing techniques.”
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- UN Convention for the Rights of Older Persons | Australian Human Rights Commission [Internet]. Humanrights.gov.au. 2019 [cited 10 March 2019]. Available from: https://www.humanrights.gov.au/news/speeches/un-convention-rights-older-persons
- Statement of UNFPA to the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing [Internet]. Social.un.org. 2019 [cited 20 March 2019]. Available from: https://social.un.org/ageing-working-group/documents/UNFPA.pdf
- Commissioner for Senior Victorians. Ageing is everyone’s business: a report on isolation and loneliness among senior Victorians. Melbourne: Department of Health and Human Services; 2016.
- Steptoe A, Shankar A, Demakakos P, Wardle J. Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2013;110(15):5797-5801.
- Pettigrew S, Donovan R, Boldy D, Newton R. Older people’s perceived causes of and strategies for dealing with social isolation. Aging & Mental Health. 2014;18(7):914-920.
- The Dangers of Too Much Alone Time [Internet]. Science | AAAS. 2019 [cited 25 March 2019]. Available from: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2013/03/dangers-too-much-alone-time
- Dury R. Social isolation and loneliness in the elderly: an exploration of some of the issues. British Journal of Community Nursing. 2014;19(3):125-128.
- Grenade L, Boldy D. Social isolation and loneliness among older people: issues and future challenges in community and residential settings. Australian Health Review. 2008;32(3): 468.