Old, Lonely and Forgotten: Combating Loneliness in the Elderly

Bev’s wife passed away last week.

He visited her twice a day at the nursing home, brought flowers every time, even it was just the “silly old daisy from the lawn”.

She would give him jobs to do in hopes he would stay past the 7pm visiting times at the nursing home. Then apologise in the morning for being so grumpy he had to leave. After 63 years of marriage, Bev Swaffield lost his wife to cancer.

A eulogy sits on his dining table to Verina Swaffeld, a full A4 page in blue ink, streaks of white where the right word needed to be found.

Imagine trying to sum up a life in just a thousand words.

“It’s good…It’s good…tough memories.”

His son left for Brisbane earlier in the morning.

Tonight, is his first night alone.

“You just got to get used to it… being lonely, you just go about your duties slowly, slower than usual,” he says.

Loneliness in the community

In Australia, there are approximately 3.4 million people over the age of 65. In Whiddon’s Social Isolation and Loneliness report more than half of those reported feelings of loneliness. Beyond Blue estimates that 10–15 percent of those suffer depression.

In a testimony to the US Senate Aging Committee, Dr Julianne Holt-Lundstad said the elderly are facing a “loneliness epidemic” which influences their health and mortality.

Vicki Gilbert is the Funding Manager and Educator at IRT Woodlands. She says that loneliness and depression is often a reason many of the elderly come into the aged care facility in the first place

“Out in the community, they (elderly) may have lost a spouse, especially women who’ve always been in in the home looking after husbands and children… encountering being on their own,” she says.

“It’s a big adjustment … then all their friends start dying around them … they lost their social network gets lost and they become really lonely.”

Vicki knows the realities of this, with her own mother being “rocked” when her doctor said that she couldn’t drive anymore.

“She used to be a very sort of strong leader and she used to be on all sorts of committees,” she says.

“She does nothing now, apart from just sit at home and quite often in a darkened room, which just isn’t, was not her.”

Bev is at the start of that journey, a man still dealing with his newfound reality. One he never thought of until his wife had to move out of the house. He says they never spoke of the possibility of her passing anytime soon.

“I suppose you should’ve and I didn’t until Verina was really crook and in the home,” he says.

“Now on my own, you’ve got to start all over again, find all things to do and cook your meals, don’t miss out on going to pay this.”

His sons have come to his house in the past week to help their Dad with planning the funeral and getting other things sorted.

But not every older person is fortunate enough to see their family help them like that. Often the culture they live in can have an impact on how isolated an older person can feel.

“With western culture, they tend to dump and run type of thing…and they don’t come back and visit terribly often at all,” Vicki says.

In a 2012 European study of feelings of loneliness in those over 50, it was found that even the worst ranked country Italy, has a lower percentage of elderly people feeling lonely (25.4) compared to Australia (Whiddon, 50%). Denmark tops the study with only 6.5 per cent of the over 50 reporting feelings of loneliness.

These statistics are far from a coincidence and Vicki who once worked in an Italian nursing home says that the way the elderly are treated in different cultures makes a big difference.

“There are a lot cultures that are very attentive to the elderly. involvement as the grandparents aged they drew them more and more into the family,” she says.

“Even if they were in a nursing home, they were there was always someone there. They’ve made it their rostered duty,

“We do get people here (IRT) that never get visitors. The Grammy dump and run.”

And even when the grandkids do visit their grandparents are they are “like strangers.”

The most significant factors to combat loneliness were all the ability to spend time with family. Whether it’s looking after the grandkids or receiving or giving help to family members.

For those in the aged care homes, she says they combat the isolation with volunteers that speak to the residents.

Local school kids also come to sing, dance and play music for the residents.

“If it is on they’re just busting to have their breakfast and get their early and sit and wait because they’re so excited and they’ll talk about it afterwards for days,” she says.

“The smiles and the way their faces light up with children around, it’s absolutely wonderful to see that,

“They just love it, can’t get enough of it.”

But for the older people at home things aren’t always so great. In Australia, the main reason the elderly feel isolated is that they don’t know enough people or even anyone within their neighbourhood.

In a world where there is a common headline of “elderly couple found dead in home” days, even months afterwards their isolation is a terrifying reality.

But it’s never too late. Getting grandparents involved in family activities and reminding them they’re not getting in the way helps their feelings of loneliness.

Often a stereotype of senility and forgetfulness hangs over the older generations. But it’s “engaging the long-term memory”, Vicki says is key to getting them talking.

“They may not be able to remember yesterday,” she says.

“The long-term memories of their past. What job they did, their family, their childhood,

“That’s what they remember.”

As Bev speaks he reminisces, sharing memories he speaks about his wife. Meeting Verina on the hockey field as teenagers, having dinner with the Governor-General when she was the NW QLD Commissioner of Girl Guides

He stops and looks and looks at the cross stitches on the wall, they look like paintings from a distance.

“All hand-stitched,” he says.

“God knows you got to find something to do as you get older.”

She even won an award for one of her works. But his favourite is of a little girl wearing red and a boy in blue sharing a swing in a snowy forest as he looks into her eyes.

As the interview closes there’s a knock at the door. He smiles as the mother and daughter stand at the door oven tray in hand. It’s sausage rolls. He offers them some tea as they walk in. Maybe things won’t be so lonely after all.

If you or anyone you know is suffering from any mental health issues, you can call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or visit them on their website beyondblue.org.au.

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