In the weeks preceding [the] Federal Budget… there has of course been an enormous level of media coverage about where Treasury should allocate funds.
While the question of how the age pension will be funded has again assumed some prominence, there are a range of complex social issues that warrant a policy and budgetary response that haven’t come into the frame. In the view of Ian Day, CEO of COTA NSW, expenditure on initiatives to address social isolation among older people is “an area which really merits attention.”
Despite this, there are no indications that this issue will be addressed in any systemic way. In fact, Australia lags far behind other comparable countries when it comes to efforts to tackle this issue – a quick comparison of Australia and the United Kingdom (UK) highlights this very starkly.
“The UK has made real progress tackling social isolation among older people,” says Mr Day. In his view, the UK has done far more work to recognise the extent to which social isolation is “a precursor to a range of the other problems."
"In the UK there seems to be recognition that if you tackle social isolation in a meaningful, systemic and whole-of-government way, you can address other problems before they reach crisis point. When you tackle social isolation you are, in effect, tackling everything from mental and physical ill health to elder abuse.”
The evidence supports this claim. The UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness
– in conjunction with the University of Kent - surveyed findings drawn from studies into the impact on loneliness from the 1940s onwards.
They found that 5 to 16% of people aged 65 or over feel lonely all or most of the time. Echoing the World Health Organisation, they found that loneliness has a range of negative impacts on people’s health, increasing psychological stress, provoking higher blood pressure, depression and cognitive decline. As a result, loneliness affects mortality. The Campaign to End Loneliness found that people with stronger social relationships had a 50% decreased risk of mortality.
While there would be few who’d dispute these findings in Australia, the UK context is distinguished by the extent to which concrete, outcome focused steps are being taken to address the problem. As Mr Day says, “the UK has made incredible strides in reducing isolation.” Asked to identify the key difference between the nations’ approaches, Mr Day argues that “people in the UK are focusing on reaching those described as ‘hard to reach’,” adding, “at every level of government, there’s a focus on taking active steps to make contact with those most at risk. Instead of attempting to tackle social isolation by staging yet more community events, or creating another new website, people are taking steps to approach the truly vulnerable in person.”
Governments are not alone in taking this approach, with a number of large volunteer-based organisations such as the UK’s Contact the Elderly applying a similar grass-roots strategy.
COTA NSW, working with the Men’s Health, Information and Resource Centre at the University of Western Sydney, applied a ‘person-to-person’ strategy when we delivered the Mate to Mate programme (Find out more about Mate to Mate project here.
It was recognised as one of the few examples of outreach work of this kind in Australia when the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology was commissioned by a number of Victorian councils to investigate how they might begin to tackle social isolation in a meaningful way.
For Mr Day, the early work undertaken in Victoria provides some encouragement that we might see a cultural shift in the way we address social isolation here. “Hopefully we’re witnessing a seachange, and this will be the start of a trend whereby all governments begin to fund some creative strategies to address this problem. One thing’s for sure, it’s not going to resolve itself."