Christmas: a good time to reflect on social connections

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Te Ārai member Stella Black visiting with Age Concern members in Gisborne as part of our Ageing Well National Science Challenge Project which is exploring social connection among older people

Merryn’s latest op ed piece for

Christmas is about families, togetherness and being with the people who mean most to us. But what if you’ve never had those people, or you’ve moved away from them, or they’ve died? Or maybe you are surrounded by people, but still feel lonely?

This is the reality for hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders for whom Christmas can be a very lonely time of year. But we do know about this don’t we? We have read enough articles about loneliness by now to know how to help, right? We know we need to check in with our neighbours, volunteer at rest homes and phone our own family members who may struggle for company over the festive period.

These are all great things for us to be doing and enable many of us to help alleviate loneliness for older neighbours and family members.

However, this individualised focus on loneliness is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it creates a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality which masks the fact that we all feel lonely at times. Ignoring this reality fuels the stigma that there is something shameful about being lonely, that it is in some way your fault. Our research has found these feelings compound peoples’ suffering, and stop many people seeking the help they need.

In addition, focusing on loneliness at an individual level can detract attention from those structural factors that inhibit social connection. For example, in our research lots of older people talked to us about the role public transport, and particularly buses, can play in getting them to places they can connect socially. The poor state of our public transport system is not a secret. However, the extent to which this inhibits social connection is not widely discussed. And buses don’t just need to run frequently and reliably. Some of our participants also felt they could not rely on bus drivers to help them get on and off the bus, which meant they often stayed home rather than risk embarrassment.

Another issue that hinders social connection for many older people is money. Many of our participants talk about wanting to ‘get out of the house’ and cafes are particularly attractive destinations for many – not just as venues for meeting friends, but also as places to connect with the wider world. Even sitting alone with a coffee could mitigate feelings of loneliness. However, as well we all know, the price of coffee is not insignificant, particularly in Auckland. Similarly, many talked about using social media to remain connected, particularly important for migrants. However, cost was raised as a barrier to being digitally connected.

In the UK there has been a public campaign to reduce the stigma of loneliness. Given the increasing awareness of the extent, and negative health effects of loneliness in New Zealand, it seems timely to consider a similar approach here.

If we took a broader perspective, the role we can all play in reducing loneliness would become much clearer. For example, I was at a conference in Vancouver a couple of months ago and was intrigued by a study exploring the role of architecture in promoting social contact. Those of you who have been to Vancouver will know there are many high rise buildings, or ‘condos’, in the city centre. What I had never thought about was how these can be designed in ways that either inhibit, or facilitate, social connection.

For example, having a well-designed common area which people must pass through on their way in or out of the building can promote incidental meetings between residents. And, as sitcoms such as Friends and The Big Bang Theory attest, even spaces like the laundry room can play a pivotal role as a setting for conversations – anywhere in fact that makes it easy for people to interact and communicate.

This bigger picture approach to understanding the barriers and facilitators to social connection opens up more possibilities about how we can help. Whether we are bus drivers or architects, we all have a role to play, and vested interest in, promoting social connection within our communities. And not just at Christmas time.

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