ABOVE: When we lack connections with other people, life’s inevitable up-hill climbs look so much steeper! PHOTO BY WARREN HEGGARTY
By Warren Heggarty
On the eve of the Royal Commission into Aged Care, ABC Political Reporter Lucy Barbour wrote that loneliness can be a major killer among elderly people (Barbour, 2018). There are a number of factors involved, but they seem to point to the lack of hope that comes with being isolated.
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures in 2015, the over-85 age group has the fourth highest suicide rate. When we look at the figures for males only, we find that this age group has the highest rate of any age group at 39.3 per 100,000 people (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016). It is more than double the rate for teenagers.
Barbour tells the story of an 82-year-old woman who was widowed after 57 years of marriage. During the long years while her husband lived with dementia, she was his carer. When he passed away, her life fell apart. For the first time in her life, she was lonely.
Her physical and mental health deteriorated because she didn’t look after herself properly, lacking the will and the energy. “Loneliness can be very dangerous,” the woman said. What saved her was joining up with a senior’s program where she was able to make friends and have something to look forward to. She now reports that she is on top of the world and her health has improved beyond her “wildest dreams.”
This demonstrates that while loneliness and depression are seemingly inescapable traps, becoming connected to other people again (or even for the first time) can turn things around. “Good company can be a lifesaver,” says Barbour. She’s right. Many people who access Flourish Australia’s services will say the same thing.
When you look at the aged care situation from a distance, you see a massively complex problem that many people say our society is not coping with. The economic and medical burdens are often spoken about, and with a strong sense of doom. When you look at the problem as a matter of helping people to find new connections with other people, perhaps it doesn’t look quite so dismal.
Society’s attitude towards older people is ironic given the fact that we are living longer and longer. In an ABC PM news report last year, Ky Chow reported these comments from Monash University Professor Paul Komesarof:
“Many older Australians had a mindset that not being as productive as they once were meant they had little to live for. They may well express to their doctor the view that they don’t want care to be prolonged. Not because they fear losing their capabilities or their capacities, but because they don’t want to impose on the rest of society, it’s their sense of responsibility. And of course that’s a terrible tragedy because these are the people who have actually created the wealth.” (Chow, 2017)
In the same report, dementia expert Henry Brodaty noted that in some cultures, failing to provide proper care for elderly people was a thing of great shame. Alas, this often leads to families avoiding nursing home placements altogether even though that might be a better outcome for some people. Think of those with high-care needs who lacked family members with the necessary competence to provide that care at home.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016, September 28). Age-specific death rates for intentional self harm by sex 2015 (a) (b) (c) -Age-specific suicide rates. Causes of Death in Australia 2015 Suicide in Australia. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/3303.0~2015~Main%20Features~Intentional%20self-harm:%20key%20characteristics~8
Barbour, L. (2018, September 23). Loneliness is contributing to depression among elderly Australians, but connection can be a lifesaver. Retrieved from ABC news: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-23/loneliness-is-contributing-to-elderly-depression/9825766
Chow, K. (2017, June 9). Why the greatest generation has the highest suicide rate in Australia. Retrieved from ABC Radio PM: http://www.abc.net.au/radio/programs/pm/why-the-greatest-generation-has-the-highest/8570424