Media often portrays ageing as a time of isolation and loneliness, but new research shows that this perception is inaccurate.
Isolation and loneliness are often thought to be part of growing older. Over half (59%) of Australians report feeling that older people are more likely to be lonely or isolated than their younger counterparts. However, results from the recently released Australian Loneliness Report indicate that those over 65 are actually the least lonely and are more socially active than younger Australians. This report was the result of the most comprehensive survey of loneliness conducted to date in Australia, with more than 1600 individuals participating. While 62% of young adults surveyed reported feeling that they lacked companionship at least sometimes, this was the case for only 46% of older adults. So if older adults are less likely to be lonely, then why do we think of older age as a time of loneliness and isolation?
Although social isolation and loneliness are related, they are not the same. Social isolation refers to a lack of social support and participation, or having few social connections. Loneliness, on the other hand, refers to the feeling associated with the perception of a lack of companionship. Professor Nancy Pachana, clinical geropsychologist and co-director of the University of Queensland Ageing Mind Initiative, says that these stereotypes of older people as being lonely persist because of “assumptions that all older adults are alike, are very conservative, religious, live alone, and are depressed.” She says, “These assumptions are symptoms of ageism and not understanding the facts about ageing… Specifically for loneliness, there is a lot presented in the media about older adults being lonely.”
The presentation of older adults in media and popular culture perpetuates ageism by depicting older adults as helpless victims, and growing older as associated with inevitable decline and deterioration. Over the past decade there has been a trend toward more positive images of older persons and examples of successful ageing in the media. More often we are seeing representations of older adults who are staying healthy, active and socially engaged, for instance the over 80’s women’s basketball league featured on ESPN, or seniors who are instafamous.
However, ageism still remains prevalent toward older adults, particularly those over 80. In entertainment, older people are often cast in minor roles and are represented as frail, lonely and dependent. Professor Pachana says, “Older adults have the same needs and wants as younger people. They aren’t just online looking at pictures of their grandkids, they are interested in travel, and dating, and other things… media representations of older adults need to reflect that they have broad interests.”
Negative beliefs about ageing can, in turn, lead some older people to be excluded by others or choosing to socially withdraw. Stereotypes of ageing have important influence over how older adults see themselves and other older people, their decisions about whether to engage in healthy behaviours like being socially or physically active, as well as how they are treated by society and the people around them.
Although isolation and loneliness aren’t necessarily direct consequences of ageing, there are certain aspects of later life that may make an older person more vulnerable to them. Matiu Bush, founder of One Good Street, an Australian-first initiative that tackles social isolation by using social networking, describes this process: “Those of us who have work, study, family and a range of social activities have a thick market of social connection, whereas people who are isolated have thin markets of social connection. This can occur regardless of age. Some market forces may be out of the individual’s control, such as death of loved ones, illness, financial hardship, and some may be within the individual’s control like retreating from activities.”
For older people, social isolation and loneliness are associated with significant consequences in terms of their physical and mental health. For example, older people who are lonely are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, depression and dementia. But the consequences are not just for the isolated individual. “At the family level we miss out on intergenerational connections. At the community level, older people have a lot of experience and could act as mentors for younger people. Both the older and younger people miss out on the value of this exchange,” says Professor Pachana.
Bush agrees, stating “It would be universally agreed that having a variety of individuals in your life of varied ages and experiences can lead to enriching and meaningful friendships. When individuals who are older and have life experience are excluded from connecting with others, there is a loss of ‘practice wisdom handover’. The community misses out on the combined knowledge and history of many people.”
Overseas, the importance of social inclusion for older people has been recognised legally in both France and China. The laws require that adult children not only provide care and financial support for their elderly parents if they require it, but also to keep in regular contact with their elderly family members. A different approach has been taken in Scotland, where they are shifting their aged care away from institutional care and toward providing care that is personalised and supports the individual to remain independent and in their own home and community.
The Australian Coalition to End Loneliness is a national initiative that is connecting universities, not for profits, agencies, and community groups to work together, raise awareness and develop evidence-based interventions for loneliness and social isolation. Also in Australia, the Red Cross Telecross offers support and a daily check in over the phone for people who are housebound or experiencing frailty or disability. Similarly, intergenerational playgroups are connecting older adults in aged care with young children. These approaches create opportunities for social interaction and, for older adults, formalise protections from becoming isolated.
While these aspects are important, to truly support older adults in being socially connected we need to engage them in the creation of the opportunities. Professor Pachana emphasises the importance of being “conscious of all forms of ageism” and “including older adults in the dialogue” rather than trying to protect them. Bush says that the “answers are on our doorstep” to help support older people to remain socially connected. “As awareness of the impact of isolation grows, the community will develop an awareness of their need to engage older people. We left them behind, they did not leave us.“
Edited by Sumudu Narayana and Ellen Rykers.