Researchers prove age-old strategy boosts wellbeing

Turns out it doesn’t take much to lift the hearts of lonely older Australians. An adventurous group outing once a fortnight can dramatically improve mental health, according to new research from Sydney’s Macquarie University.

Participants felt happier, more confident and formed new friendships when they went on group excursions such as horse riding, river cruises or to musicals, according to a study of older adults living independently.

COVID lockdowns have given the broader community a taste of just how isolating life can be. And statistically, the older you are, the more likely you are to live alone, with one in three older Australians living in single-person households.

Read more: Strategy to combat loneliness

This increases poverty rates and social isolation due to a lack of human touch, interaction and support, leading to poorer mental and physical health.

Loneliness, not COVID, is the long-term epidemic of our time. Replacing the social frameworks of previous generations, such as big, close-knit families, intergenerational households, village life and religious communities, is a complex challenge and today’s societies have to step up to alleviate this widespread suffering.

Finding ways to do that simply and effectively is the goal of Dr Joyce Siette, a post-doctoral researcher at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation at Macquarie University.

As a result of her research, Dr Siette suggests future government initiatives for older people living at home should prioritise social connection.

“The benefits were largely related to social wellbeing,” Dr Siette told Macquarie University’s Lighthouse publication.

To explore the impact on their mental health of getting out and about, Dr Siette and her team evaluated a study of 57 adults over the age of 65 living in Perth. Once a fortnight, they would head out on group excursions including skating, riding a Harley Davidson, dinner at a restaurant and so on.

Read more: Creating spaces for connection

To gauge the benefits of the outings, the team used a standard tool used widely internationally – the Adult Social Care Outcomes Toolkit – to design their survey and interviews.

Before they began the study, most participants (whose average age was 81) reported their quality of life as “moderate”, but after the excursions everyone said they felt more confident and happier.

“I feel like my old self again,” said Larry*, a participant who said he’d withdrawn “into a shell” for about 10 years and didn’t go out. “Since the program started, I’m more connected and I’m communicating regularly.”

Read more: Time to mix things up

Participants in the study were living independently and receiving community-based services from either the government-subsidised Commonwealth Home Support Program or the Home Care Package Program.

In addition to this regular help with shopping, cleaning and gardening, they were invited to a fortnightly activity, lasting from two hours to half a day, at no cost. They were surveyed before the excursions and again after six months.

Carers were also interviewed and they reported significant improvements after the excursions.

One carer said: “Dad went ice-skating yesterday. Came home and he was just grinning from ear to ear – and this is someone who was highly depressive. So the behavioural changes are enormous.”

Carers also appreciated the program because it gave them some respite.

Participants and carers agreed the program was a success because the activities were group-based and there was a choice of excursions. Another big tick was that they were picked up and dropped home, and staff accompanied them on the outings to assist if needed.

Even the anticipation of the excursion was positive for many participants.

“If you’re on your own you think, I won’t do that or I’ll do that tomorrow,” says Dorothy*, another participant. “Now I get quite excited. I think tomorrow we’re going out and it gives me a lift.”

Dr Siette says: “Excursion, group-based activities that focus on building and bridging relationships can create a sense of belonging and inclusion, address social loneliness and improve older adults’ physical, mental and social outcomes.

“They loved having the opportunity to socialise and make new friendships. It was amazing – some of the participants even started having sleepovers with their friends as relationships continued after the program.”

Are you lonely? Do you have access to group outings in your area? Why not share your experiences in the comments section below?

*Names have been changed.

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Written by Rebecca Tolan

Rebecca has worked in journalism for 20 years, been a DIY-er for more, and is in the middle of her very own grand design. Retirement seems a long way off! In her spare time she rows surfboats, plays volleyball with her kids and dreams of future holidays.