Social isolation a critical issue facing our elderly

Social isolation among older people is one of the biggest health risks facing Australia. Photo by Yuri Arcurs.

Social isolation among older people is one of the biggest health risks facing Australia. Photo by Yuri Arcurs.
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Chief Investigator Professor Andrew Beer and a team of researchers have been awarded $348,151 by the Australian Research Council to look at the most effective programs to combat social isolation in an ageing society, where divorce, lower marriage rates and reduced fertility are contributing to a critical health issue.

“Social isolation is equivalent to the health effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day or consuming more than six alcoholic drinks daily,” Professor Beer says. “It is more harmful than not exercising and twice as harmful as obesity.”

Professor Beer is the Director of the Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Adelaide.

He and his colleague Dr Debbie Faulkner will partner with researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, University of Melbourne, Curtin University and King’s College London, as well as aged care and charitable organisations across five states to pinpoint those programs which are successful in reducing social isolation.

“Numerous studies have documented the health impact of social isolation but there is very limited research on what programs work best, and for whom, to tackle the problem,” he says.

“It is estimated that 20% of older Australians are socially isolated, which results in insomnia, depression, a greater likelihood of developing dementia and elevated blood pressure, among other health problems.

“This has a reverberating effect on society, placing extra strain on carers, additional demands on health services, a reduced sense of community and a greater need for acute interventions by local governments, housing providers and other welfare services.”

Scientific evidence suggests the most effective programs are those that have an educational component, are targeted at specific groups – i.e. women, caregivers and widowers – and involve the recruitment of people from the same neighbourhood.

“We need to look at this in more depth and also examine the differences between gender, location, housing options, age, the presence of a disability, and socio-economic status,” Professor Beer says.

About 900 older Australians will be surveyed as part of the three-year study, along with focus groups, service providers and policy makers in this area.

The University of Adelaide will also partner with Benetas, Anglicare SA, Council on the Ageing Queensland, ECH, Illawarra Retirement Trust and Silver Chain Nursing Association.

The results of the study are expected in mid 2014.