Tags: Community & relationships Relationships Community connectedness

It’s about making sure that individuals have a really strong support network around them to be able to maintain that sense of connection.”—Prue Bowden, CEO, Home Health, Australian Unity

Key points

  • As our parents age, their social circles can shrink, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation—which, in turn, can impact on their wellbeing.

  • By contacting old friends, or finding new community groups or activities, your parents can build connections and a sense of belong. For people who are unable to participate in more-active events, it's worth exploring online groups or gatherings within their retirement community.

  • If your parents are feeling shy about reaching out, encourage them to “check in” on friends and family members—it can reduce feelings of vulnerability, and benefits both your parent and the person they're checking in on.


Do you know much about your parents’ social life? Do they regularly catch up for coffee with friends, head out on social outings, or take part in a club? Or are they spending a lot of time alone?

Humans are highly social creatures, and we depend on strong personal relationships with family, friends and our community to support and sustain us through life. Unfortunately, as we age, our social circles can shrink. The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index—a 20-year-plus study into the wellbeing of Australians, conducted in partnership with Deakin University—found that loneliness increases for people over the age of 76.

But what can we do about it? Prue Bowden, CEO of Australian Unity Home Health, and Jean Kittson AM, performer, author and host of ‘Parenting Up with Australian Unity’, discuss loneliness and ageing, and provide tips for helping our parents stay connected.


The impact of loneliness


Prolonged periods of loneliness and isolation can be extremely distressing, and are related to more frequent experiences of negative emotions. In fact, high levels of loneliness can not only contribute to mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety, but also physical health issues, such as heart disease and stroke.

“Forging new connections is a really important part of it, not just holding on to connections of old.”

Prue Bowden, CEO,
Home Health, Australian Unity

On the other hand, just because someone lives alone, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re lonely. For these people, “it’s about making sure that individuals have a really strong support network around them to be able to maintain that sense of connection,” Prue says. “That is the best way ward off those feelings of loneliness.”

Finding new connections

Australian Unity Wellbeing Index research shows a strong link between community connectedness and greater wellbeing. But, as our parents age, their social circles shrink through natural attrition, and it can be harder for them to get out and about.

“I know for my parents, who are 99 and 96, that all their friends have died,” Jean says, adding that they are also now physically unable to participate in social activities such as bowling and walking groups.

If your parent, or any elder, confesses to you that they’re lonely, the first thing to do is to gently enquire whether they have friends or family coming to visit them, and about the frequency of those visits, says Prue.

Next, build their confidence by encouraging them to take small steps to reach out to old friends and family, if they’re around, or to foster new relationships, perhaps by attending community groups and gatherings. If your parents—like Jean's—can no longer take part in more-physical activities, Prue suggests encouraging them to find new and different ways to meet people—for example, using technology to participate in online clubs, or checking the social calendar of their retirement community.

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“It’s about finding new connections and social circles and reaching out in community, or working with your aged-care provider, if you have the benefit of having support at home, to figure out what sort of social activities they offer that your parents can participate in,” says Prue. “Because forging new connections is a really important part of it, not just holding on to connections of old.”

There is also a lot of value in spending time with people outside their own age group. As Jean puts it: “Our elders really need to stay connected with the community as a whole, not just other elders.”

Prue agrees. “You look at these new reality shows that show the benefits of our elders participating with the younger generation, and the way that gives them meaning and a sense of belonging, and a different kind of connection with the community,” she says.

Carers: an important social connection

The people who help support and care for our parents are part of their social circle too, and can play a vital role in fostering a sense of connection.

“One of Mum and Dad’s most important social connections is the person that comes five days a week to help them,” says Jean. “Katie is just a beautiful person. She started as their care worker, but now their connection is very strong—and that relationship is so important because there’s so much trust there. And they feel much more empowered when she’s the one who’s coming to help them through the day.

“They’ve got a real connection and she knows them, she knows how they like things done, and they know about her life. So it’s a reciprocal relationship, it’s not just receiving help.”

“One of Mum and Dad's most important social connections really is the person that comes five days a week to help them.”

Jean Kittson, author of
We Need to Talk About Mum & Dad

Katie also helps Jean’s parents, who are vision-impaired, maintain a connection to their community by reading out their retirement village newsletters, and keeping them informed about what’s happening in the world around them.

Empowering your parents to reach out

If your loved one is feeling a bit hesitant, Jean has an excellent suggestion for reframing their mindset.

“If you’re lonely, you are already feeling really vulnerable and you don’t even know whether you should go and see a friend because you think you might be a burden,” she says. “But if you think to yourself, ‘Oh, well I’m seeing my friend because I want to check up on my friend’s wellbeing’, then that gives you a motivation and a purpose that is outside yourself, and then you can just go and have a hug and then go home again.”

Prue loves this idea. “There’s a reciprocal nature to that conversation,” she says. “Both of you will benefit from that discussion. So absolutely that’s a beautiful way to think about engaging and encouraging others to engage in those important discussions.”

At a macro level, Prue adds, perhaps the most important thing you can do for your parents is to create the space for them to be honest about how they’re feeling, by having the courage yourself to initiate and lean into those conversations. Because once those feelings of loneliness and isolation are identified, you’re in a much better position to step forward and help.

“It’s absolutely being there in the moment that they need that particular conversation,” says Prue. “It’s active listening, and it’s really working with them to find a solution or a point of connection that works for them. And that is a deeply personal and individual action.”



Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.