In choosing an aged care facility for a loved-one; one of the most important aspects to consider is just how much of a community feeling there is in the aged care facility and whether or not your loved-one will feel lonely there. I have visited dozens of aged care facilities – unfortunately, some are sad places where the residents hardly ever talk to each other. Then there are those aged care services where friendly chatter and energy seems to fill the rooms and common areas. You have to make sure that the aged care you choose for your loved-one is proactive in trying to reduce the loneliness amongst its residents, and builds a sense of community.
Joining an aged care facility is going to be daunting. Many of us going into aged care are moving away from the communities we know and love, and will no longer be a hop, skip, and a jump from our friends and family. Moving into care can be much like moving into a hospital; visiting hours, carers, and boredom. All of these things can inspire loneliness, but none more so than the loss of community.
In choosing an aged care facility it is important to understand how the transition into aged care is handled. According to the Managing Director of Yukana Aged Care, Brett Mullen, they have a very personal way to integrate a new resident into the community. “The answer is simple, we actually spend time with a new resident having two staff whose main focus is customer service and relationship, who help integrate a new resident into a welcoming, caring and engaging community.”
“It is in close consultation with the resident and their family that we are able to provide solutions that allows the resident not to feel disempowered but empowered to make choices in regards to their own life again, which has a real and positive impact upon the life of the resident.”
Similarly, Greg Skelton, CEO of PresCare agrees on the importance of understanding client needs from the very beginning of a person’s journey in aged care. “Our team of professionals work closely with our clients and their families to get to know them and ensure their needs are identified, agreed upon, and is then delivered how they want it.” Loneliness and isolation are bad for us.
This is a scientific fact, and the information surrounding it is bleak. Studies from Brigham University suggest that the health risks associated with loneliness are “comparable to wellestablished risk factors such as obesity, substance abuse, injury, and violence.” But we all know that it can get worse – loneliness is contagious, older adults who are feeling lonely are more prone to behaving in a manner that may cause others to wish to avoid interacting with them. This sensation of rejection, in turn, causes people to push others away and continue a vicious, isolated cycle.
In addition to the welcoming process for new residents, how are aged care providers battling the loneliness and loss of community feeling? Many are taking excellent forward strides. I recently came across a great example of this from the Netherlands, where Dutch students can live rent-free in senior living communities. Not only does this method help students financially, but it addresses loneliness in both young people and the elderly – both of whom are at equal risk.
The students bring a sense of vitality and activity to the community, encouraging more senior residents to get involved, while the seniors themselves foster and encourage the youths as they traverse a tricky stage in their lives. It is a financial and psychological asset for all involved, and is a very clever method of addressing a prevalent issue.
Australian aged care facilities are engaging in their own methods to combat loneliness and isolation. Even the choice of location can have an impact. For instance, I found one aged care facility located near a library and a local school. I am sure that residents here get many more visits from friends who may be visiting the library and therefore drop in for a chat. The proximity of the school also encourages visits from school kids as part of their community engagement work.
The recent change in the government policy to combine the previous high-care and lowcare definitions of aged care into one, also had a positive impact on building a sense of community. In the past, high-care residents and low-care residents were often in physically separate parts of the aged care facility and this did not foster interaction. These physical proximity issues are being removed and more integrated facilities have been introduced.
Integration, however does bring a new problem, which is size. The larger aged care residences could have around 150 residents and an equally large contingent of staff. With so many residents and staff it is difficult to establish a sense of belonging. Sometimes the more people there are around you, the lonelier you can get. How is loneliness in a crowd guarded against and how is a sense of belonging nurtured? A big part of the solution according to Brett is people related.
“It is all about the people element in care, having the right staff with the right heart for the people that they are caring for, which is key for us. When we are employing staff we look for people who firstly have certain types of attributes, i.e. they have a real desire to work with ageing people (heart), they have values that serve our residents well i.e. respect, dignity, and honour. They are compassionate and flexible in their work duties, as you never know what is going to come up in the day in the life of a resident, and our staff need to be able to delivery the highest possible care needed in that circumstance.”
Improving aged care starts with improving a sense of belonging amongst residents. This means providing options and opportunities that those living in a range of care scenarios can engage with. An easy way to improve care is simply to foster caring relationships between individuals, other residents, staff, and family and friends. This may mean having more varied visiting hours, on site cafes, and social events where people from the outside world can come in.
This may also mean allowing residents the freedom to engage with the community beyond the care facility, be it on independent visits or on organised trips.
Having community services on site is a great benefit too; yoga, breathing classes, laughing classes, cooking, gardening, knitting, painting, and everything in between would benefit residents. Getting involved in a new community is vital, and such involvement is not difficult to pursue – especially if it combats the negative effects of loneliness. Aged care facilities are also arranging more activities for senior communities. These include trips to the cinema and supermarket, exercise and health groups, lifestyle activities such as painting, drawing, and gardening, and social evenings whereby seniors can have dinner, a dance, and enjoy the company of their peers, friends, and family.
Greg gives some examples of the initiatives at PresCare, “There are a number of programs in Queensland that PresCare has created to help keep people more connected. Friendships clubs, Men’s Clubs, High Tea’s and regular social outings are just some of the initiatives that we have implemented to reduce the likelihood of social isolation occurring. We have also sponsored Golf Queensland’s Senior Order of Merit series of events – it’s not just about keeping people independent at home, but connected to their community.”
Individuality is key in these situations, and those involved may wish to give back too. They may even get involved in the kitchen, helping bake morning tea for their visitors, or even for other residents. Or, they may create flower arrangements to brighten living spaces, or paint fresh images to be cycled through the halls. The possibilities are endless, and all positive influences on the life of those in care.
Going into aged care should not mean retiring from community. For a long time, there has been a stigma associated with aged care. Isolation, loneliness, and a sense of removal and even disposal can influence those who may need to move into aged care. This, however, does not need to be the case. The old ideas about aged care do not need to hold true, and improvements are already being made the world over to ensure that the negative influence of loneliness is removed from care, allowing seniors to enjoy the twilight of their lives whilst surrounded by new friends and family.
However, it cannot be denied that we are in a period of transition and some aged care facilities are still behind the eight ball in terms of fostering a sense of community, so you need to choose carefully to find a modern aged care facility that is doing its best to facilitate social engagement in its residents, because it recognises the benefits of healthy social interaction, and the positive influence it has on the elderly and those associated with them.