The community web of social support needs to be broad and strong to provide a liveable community for all older Australians. Social support is offered and received in a variety of ways, including in-home assistance, and through opportunities to participate in social clubs, learning activities or volunteering. Our research identified three key sources of social support including charity organisations, family / friends and neighbours.
"Red Cross ring me up twice a week, to see if I am alright. If I don't answer the phone, the second time they ring it twice." (Participant 49, male, 75 years)
"I only need to tell the Lions I need a bit of help somewhere and they pick me up and take me up to the Lions' and all that." (Participant 38, male, 88 years)
Older Australians have strong bonds with family and friends. They engage with them socially on a regular basis and rely on them when they need help.
"I think we have a network of probably friends of theirs [our children's] and ours that would be able to come and help us, yep." (Participant 41, female, 72 years)
"I’ve got heaps of friends...a friend rang me up this morning and said 'Oh, I’m just checking to see that you’re all right and that no big bogeyman come and got you last night.' Because, you know, I don’t have many nights on my own." (Participant 27, female, 68 years)
Some participants socialise regularly with their neighbours, while others simply exchange a friendly ‘hello’ with them. Regardless of the depth of these relationships, the vast majority stated that they could rely on their neighbours if they called upon them for help.
"It is a fairly close community and we help each other out. If neighbours want help, you help them out." (Participant 42, female, 69 years)
"I know...five neighbours pretty well...if there’s a crisis or a big problem I could go to any one of those five and say 'Help!' " (Participant 31, male, 76 years)
"Since I've been in hospital, I have been overwhelmed with all the people that have offered to help. As a matter of fact, I am embarrassed with all the help I have been offered [from my neighbours]." (Participant 22, male, 69 years)
"The chap across the road, he’s my computer expert...he can’t do a great deal in the garden and things like that so, we’ll do bits and pieces for him and he rescues me computer wise." (Participant 34, female, 69 years)
While many Australians are engaged with their communities, receiving social support from family, friends, neighbours and organisations, others appear to be disengaged and isolated. According to one participant, a lack of respect and understanding from the broader community is a key reason for this disengagement and isolation.
“I feel terribly sorry for him. He’s got sons and daughters here, but, I mean, I don’t know how often he goes to see them or anything, but he’s on his own a lot.” (Participant 29, male, 84 years)
“Just across from us we have another friend who is having problems with loneliness and [the] drink. He has the occasional breakdown and has to go into hospital...we befriend him a little bit. He’s a great chess player so I go and play chess with him sometimes to try and help him to feel less lonely. Loneliness is the big problem in this community and I think it must be in all other aged communities.” (Participant 28, male, 83 years)
“We have people because of their age, ignored, disregarded, treated as second-rate citizens...it’s almost like elder abuse, it’s not abuse so much as neglect...We have men who are put down a lot and taken advantage of and unfortunately they accept much of the myth that surrounds older people...‘Because they’re old and their mobility is not good then why would they want to get out of their home?’ And so you get all of that kind of thinking that reinforces the stereotypes and unfortunately many of the men believe those things and comply with them.” (Participant 31, male, 76 years)
The following two graphs show a vast diversity in the level of activity in which older Australians engage. While it is imperative to note that some may happily choose to spend the majority of their time at home, others may be isolated due to a lack of social support.
Social Participation - Active
Participant 7 week overview: activity (hours spent)
Social Participation - Inactive
Participant 6 week overview: activity (hours spent)
To address isolation, we must ensure all Australians are not only offered physical and emotional support but are also exposed to opportunities that enable community engagement; opportunities for them to learn and give back to their communities are key to combating isolation. Many people desire to continue to learn as they grow older. Dr Hilda des Arts (aka ‘Cyber Granny’) has highlighted that society needs to change their thinking in order to recognise that people have the potential to keep growing and keep learning as they age.
Liveable communities must provide a multitude of options to enable older Australians to participate in learning activities. While U3A (University of the Third Age) offers extensive programs for their mature age students and many universities welcome older Australians into their programs, there continues to be barriers to learning as people grow older.
“I’m interested in talking and discussing things. They have discussion groups there [at U3A], so I joined one of the discussion groups and it was quite enjoyable...[but] it wasn’t at a high enough level of debate, it was rather informal...now I go to Thinkers’ Corner, [at] the University of Southern Queensland.” (Participant 28, male, 83 years)
Why do you think so few older Australians access these services?
“I think it must be lack of information and lack of transport.” (Participant 28, male, 83 years)
"Something I have always wanted to do was - I love learning. I love university stuff, but I do not want to do a degree again. I do not want to do assessment, I don't want any of that. I don't want to pay the money and I don't want to have to go three days a week. I just want to go to lectures for the sake of learning and listening and seeing what goes on there." (Participant 18, female, 65 years)
Importantly, we must not only provide these opportunities but must also ensure that we clearly communicate these options. Our research shows that some older Australians perceive there to be little attention given to social longevity. While a growing body of research is emerging about the importance of maintaining social engagement as people age, it is clear that there is little acknowledgment of this in the public domain. This serves to highlight the need to educate the public on research innovations being undertaken. An increased understanding across society will inevitably prompt discussion and debate about what else needs to be done to ensure social longevity for all Australians.
“If we are going to live longer...there is the possibility that you could be looking at people who live to 150, then.. there's 50 to 60 years of retirement. So what are you going to do with it? And nobody is researching it. There's research on health and pills and everything else to get us there...at the moment there is the mental block and I hope...somebody...will really have a look at it and say, "Well, that is an area of excitement, the twilight years." Not "how many more beds are we going to put sick people into?" If there's anything more degrading, I do not know.” (Participant 20, male, 80 years).
Older Australians themselves are often the ones to address the problem of isolation. A number of clubs, groups and organisations are targeted specifically at older Australians. Whether working as part of a team, volunteering their time or simply becoming a member, older Australians are filling the social void and avoiding loneliness for themselves and others.
“We were really looking at combating social isolation, which is a big factor in suicide rates among older men, particularly when it’s linked with mental health and other disabilities. So we created virtually a social support group for older men and then from that base we were able to identify more meaningful activities that would penetrate more and more into the need areas of the men.” (Participant 31, male, 76 years)
The research shows that those who volunteer are generally more engaged with their community. They are more active and willing to participate, with some spending the majority of their time outside of their homes in a volunteer capacity.
Those who do volunteer conveyed a sense of satisfaction and achievement from giving back to their communities. Additionally, they felt that they gained from helping others in their communities as it keeps them mentally active, creates an opportunity to make new friends or offers them a learning experience.
“I am very involved with the refugees. I have been working with the refugee movement and trying to do my little bit there...It makes me feel good, I feel that's my little, you know, contribution.” (Participant 18, female, 65 years)
“The people from Home Assist had decided to sponsor a men’s shed...and they asked me if I’d be on a steering committee to help set it up...I’ve been with that now for about 12 months and we’ve now got our shed all up and running...I can’t do it all but I’m doing as much as I can these days...I’d far rather be doing that than sitting down twiddling my thumbs. You’ve got to do something, I appreciate that, and I think that’s what’s wrong with a lot of people who retire. They just sit there and vegetate, they don’t get out and do things.” (Participant 24, male, 71 years)
“I’ve been a bookkeeper all my life, so I can just do that without any hassle. It’s just keeping me mentally active.” (Participant 36, female, 73 years)
“They said ‘retirement is the...opportunity to pass on your skills and experience to other people’...I thought, well, I have an opportunity now...so I contacted the Leukaemia Foundation to see if they wanted a volunteer...I did that for about 15/18 months...I enjoyed my time there. I made some beautiful friends...it was an interesting experience.” (Participant 11, female, 79 years)
“Brisbane Seniors On-line is an organisation which is entirely voluntary and gets practically no money from the council. It's designed as a way of helping the over 50s...learn computers. These are people who have missed out on learning when they were at school or...maybe they never worked [with computers]. I like it because...I get to learn a lot myself when I am helping them. I am not an IT professional - just a user who has got a lot more experience than any of these people.” (Participant 9, male, 77 years)
One participant who had enjoyed volunteering in the past and spoke of many positive experiences that occurred because of this involvement, highlighted several barriers to older Australians doing volunteer work including a lack of flexibility, overwhelming paper work, and a lack of recognition.
“You know, why do they need to know all this stuff? I feel it's becoming a chore, like applying for a job...But that's mostly the organisations that are funded by the government. They have got to be accountable and they have got to prove this, you know; you need the blue card, and you need this and that. No end to it. You know, it's like "..." Centrelink.” (Participant 18, female, 65 years)
“I wanted to go there (U3A) for fun, for my enjoyment, and the first thing they asked me, they said, ‘Oh, you are a French teacher. Oh, we always have people wanting to learn French, so would you like to please teach?’...I have been teaching French for 30 "..." years. Leave me alone. I don't want more work, more commitment. I want to do something I enjoy for the sake of enjoying...They are already grabbing me for my skills and if I go, I will feel guilty for saying no.” (Participant 18, female, 65 years)
“I have given up the volunteering bit for about a year. I felt like, I have been volunteering all my life. In [the] school where my daughter was...I felt I was at school more than some of the teachers...You become part of the furniture and they don't realise you are not getting paid. I'm sure half of them thought I was like an assistant teacher or something like that. I felt too overcommitted...So I started to resent it and I said, "Hey, I don't have to do this." Okay, back off, I am taking a year just to be self-indulgent, selfish and do my own thing. And I have done that and I have enjoyed it immensely but I also feel guilty; it's not me, you know. It's not me. I don't want to be the type of person in my retirement who watches Days of Our Lives, who goes out to lunch with the girls every day and just gossip about the fashion. I need...[to] have balance now...I can volunteer one day a week and then I am free.” (Participant 18, female, 65 years)