The strategy that is combating loneliness – and poverty

One in five older Australians feels lonely, especially those aged 75 and over, and 41 per cent of participants aged 55-plus are struggling financially due to low income and rent increases, according to PRD Research.

But older renters are seeing benefits in returning to younger behaviours and sharing a house, the research found.

“All participants who were independently renting indicated that splitting the rent and operational expenses with another tenant is an effective way of easing financial struggles and stress,” the 2020 Shared Living Preferences of Older Australians report said. 

“In comparison, the majority of owner-occupiers were less positively inclined towards the idea of shared living and were instead re-entering or remaining in the labour force in order to sustain their financial positions. 

“However, owner-occupiers have indicated loneliness as a potential reason why they would consider shared living.”

Though sharing might have been forced on them because of financial difficulties, after entering shared living arrangements many renters said they were enjoying retirement more.

Almost 60 per cent of survey respondents said ‘yes’ to shared living, with most of those being renters. 

According to the report: “All participants that were already in a shared living environment stated the main reason behind their decision was due to unaffordability to own their own home or to rent by themselves.”

The report said that for many over-55s, maintaining rent on a single income was too difficult. 

“In addition, studies have shown that the growing number of older Australians aged 55 and over in the rental market is increasing and that median rental prices have increased in recent years,” the report said.

Research has shown that lonely and socially isolated older people are more likely to experience pain, frailty and dementia. They’re also more likely to die younger than their more socially connected peers.

In 2017, co-housing was promoted as a way to help older people find socially connected, financially sustainable housing.

Co-housing aims to mix private and shared living spaces to balance privacy and the need for community. 

Usually, prospective residents participate in the design process; the design mixes private dwellings with shared spaces, and residents are involved in governing the property.

Many older Australians surveyed then about co-housing thought it was the domain of hippies and communes and disliked the idea of sharing living spaces. They worried about losing their independence, others not doing enough of the maintenance work and the demands of governance. However, up to 20 per cent were interested.

“A market of 10 to 20 per cent (for co-housing) could make a very significant contribution to meeting our housing challenges,” the researchers concluded for The Conversation.

Why is loneliness important?
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) states that social isolation and loneliness can be harmful to both mental and physical health.

“They are considered significant health and wellbeing issues in Australia because of the impact they have on peoples’ lives. 

“Social isolation is seen as the state of having minimal contact with others. It differs from loneliness, which is a subjective state of negative feelings about having a lower level of social contact than desired.”

It says living alone is a substantial risk factor for loneliness.

Relationships Australia’s report on the ‘epidemic’ of loneliness says social connection is vital to wellbeing across the life span, particularly in later life.

“So important and fundamental is our need to belong, it has often been considered as central to human evolution, with group membership increasing the survival of the human species by encouraging our ancestors to coordinate activities that promoted advantages such as sharing and protecting food, shelter and resources.

“It is, therefore, not surprising that deficits in experiences and feelings of belonging have been associated with a range of poor mental, physical and socio-economic outcomes for people, their families and communities.”

It said that people who are socially isolated or lonely are at risk of premature mortality at rates comparable with other well-established risk factors, including lack of physical activity, obesity, substance abuse, poor mental health, injury, and violence.

Loneliness is also linked to poor mental health, including depression, lower levels of self-worth, life satisfaction, and subjective wellbeing.

“For older cohorts, loneliness has been found to be a predictor of functional decline and premature death, with a lack of social connection carrying health risks equivalent to other known risky behaviours such as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“Both men and women face a greater risk of social and emotional isolation if their financial situation has deteriorated or they have lost their jobs.

“For both males and females, employment was consistently associated with lower rates of loneliness and receipt of income support was consistently associated with higher rates of loneliness.”

Poverty, unemployment, and poor relationships are associated with loneliness and lonely people are likely to make greater use of the healthcare system.

Staying connected
The onset of the pandemic and the lockdown of many aged care facilities led to greater isolation for many older Australians. Researchers Dr Barbara Barbosa Neves and Sandra Sanders suggested the following to help isolated older Australians:

· schedule regular phone calls
· send routine text messages — just to say hi or to forward an article of interest
· exchange a picture a day via text message, email, or social media. Why not start a photo challenge?
· organise video calls to share mealtimes or activities
· participate in shared virtual experiences such as joining or starting online book clubs, streaming TV shows or movies at the same time, or virtually visiting a zoo, museum, or gallery together
· return to the days of snail mail by sending a postcard or handmade artwork. It’s a good time to encourage grandchildren to write letters or send drawings· neighbours can leave notes in letterboxes with their contact information for those who need someone to talk to, help with errands, or provide assistance navigating information in different languages.

Would you consider shared living or co-housing?

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Written by Will Brodie

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