Social isolation in older people has emerged as a key health and social issue and can have a similar negative impact on the health of older people to that of smoking, high blood pressure or obesity.
The number of New Zealanders aged over 65 is rapidly increasing. This group of people will live differently and have different expectations of support services than today’s older people. This will have an enormous impact on our health and social care policy, services and programmes. They are already struggling to cope with a greater number of people living longer than ever before, and there is increasing conversation that the way we support older people needs to change.
Like all of us, older people are significantly more likely to thrive when they have positive connections to friends, family, communities, work or education. The challenge is that older people tend to become more and more disconnected from these important social environments as they age. They are increasingly likely to live alone, experience a disability that limits mobility or interaction; may transition out of paid work without an alternative day activity; and their friends are more likely to move away or pass away.
Experiencing strong social connectedness has a positive impact on every sphere of life, and at every scale. It is a key protective factor in the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. Conversely, a lack of social connection can have a huge negative impact on people and communities. Social isolation is a key driver of loneliness. A 2012 Auckland study found 45% of older people living in the community experienced loneliness, and 9% said they experienced severe loneliness.