Helping Seniors to Keep Connected

02 Nov 2021

Hands

More than 400 people from around the globe joined together online for the 2021 Eastern Suburbs Older Persons’ Mental Health Service’s healthy ageing forum.

Mr Michael Still, Chairman of the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District, officially opened the Keeping Connected: Social Health and Ageing forum and acknowledged that 2021 had been a complex year for everyone, with COVID-19 remaining the centre of our lives.

“We are almost learning anew that looking after our mental health is vital to our happiness and wellbeing – not just for ourselves but also for our communities,” said Mr Still.

The free event, supported by the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA), sought to promote finding ways to remain socially connected and implement strategies to combat adversity.

Author of The Kindness Revolution and social researcher Hugh Mackay AO told the audience that as humans we are members of a social species and therefore built to connect: “We are hopeless in social isolation”.

Our deepest psychological need is to belong – to be noticed, heard, appreciated and included.

Hugh Mackay AO

“I would therefore define kindness as anything we do to demonstrate to another person that we take them seriously,” he said. 

According to Mackay, listening is one of the most potent acts of kindness we can give to another person. The capacity for kindness is part of our human nature, but it still needs to be nurtured in ourselves and our children.

Hugh Mackay
Hugh Mackay AO

Mr Mackay said the sort of global social trends that have been reshaping us - such as shrinking households, busyness, and our enthusiastic embrace of social media - have all been contributing to social fragmentation and increasing the risk of social isolation.

“This distracts us from the idea that, as members of a co-operative species, we all need to engage with the task of building social harmony.”

With 25% of Australian adults (pre-pandemic) reporting feeling lonely for most of every week, Mr Mackay posed the question of whether we will collectively take the lessons we have learned from the pandemic – especially the need for social connection – and strengthen our commitment to kindness as a way of life.

“If we dare to dream of a kinder, more compassionate society, that is less cynical and more harmonious, it can be turned into a reality. Each of us must live as if it is that kind of society and then that is the society it will become,” said Mr Mackay. “Revolutions never start at the top.”

Postdoctoral Fellow from the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) and Clinical Psychologist, Dr Suraj Samtani, discussed the importance of social connections for mental health.

Dr Samtani reminded the audience that we can remain socially connected regardless of COVID-19, even though it is more challenging. 
“We have been told to social distance from those closest to us, but physical distancing is not the same as social distancing and it is an important distinction,” said Dr Samtani.

Dr Samtani advised that evidence indicates that people that socially connect with friends or family at least once a month do better than those who do not. 
“Family support – especially during mid-life – is important for mental health,” said Dr Samtani.

It’s not about how many people we have in our social network, it’s about having someone we can confide in. This factor is protective against depression and anxiety.

Dr Suraj Samtani

Dr Samtani also provided strategies to maintain and improve the quality of our relationships with people including showing gratitude, using humour and repairing issues by offering an apology where appropriate.

Dr Suraj Samtani
Dr Suraj Samtani
Dr Stephanie Ward
Dr Stephanie Ward

Other speakers at the online forum were leading researchers in the fields of connectedness Prince of Wales Hospital specialist doctor for older people – Geriatrician Dr Stephanie Ward.  Dr Ward, who is also a Senior Research Fellow at CHeBA, showed a heartwarming highlight from the intergenerational project she was involved with: ABC’s Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds.

Dr Ward defined intergenerational contact as the purposeful bringing together of different generations for the benefit of everybody. She confirmed that the interaction between the older participants and children resulted in significant positive changes in the older adults’ frailty, mood and quality of life. The research conducted within the tv show also improved the social skills and vocabulary of the 4-year-olds.

With 10% of Australians living in aged care and 40% of those residents reporting they do not receive a single visitor over a full year period, the issue of social connection for older adults is clearly something that needs address.

“When I’m looking after older adults I’m trying to manage lots of health issues, said Dr Ward. “What I’ve found is that all of the issues have a relationship with social isolation and loneliness.”

“There are lots of factors outside the clinical model of care that have a huge impact on our wellbeing,” said Dr Ward. “It is fundamental that we consider social factors when looking at improving our health and wellbeing.”

Honorary Medical Officer of the Older Persons’ Mental Health Service, Prince of Wales Hospital and Co-Director of CHeBA, Scientia Professor Henry Brodaty AO, recapped the various stressors we all experienced during the wake of the COVID-19 Ruby Princess outbreak.

“Beyond the new stress of daily numbers, there were complications in acquiring hand sanitiser and face masks, there were concerns about ICU capacity and ventilators and we were starved of friends and family,” said Professor Brodaty.

“We became very careful. We wanted to avoid unnecessary exposure.”

Professor Brodaty explained the stress response in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic and touched on how resilience can moderate the response. 

Resilience is managing stress. Resilient people use more active coping styles to manage adversity.

Professor Henry Brodaty AO

Interestingly, during the pandemic older adults have demonstrated less anxiety and depression than younger adults possibly on the average they are more resilient and more capable of regulating emotions than younger adults. This is due to the fact that older adults have a reservoir of knowledge and skills to help them adjust – and according to Professor Brodaty this is a learned process.

Professor Henry Brodaty
Professor Henry Brodaty AO

“Coping strategies are essential for our wellbeing,” said Professor Brodaty, who then listed four core components to building resilience: social connections, fostering wellness, embracing healthy thoughts and finding purpose.

“It is important to keep things in perspective and identify irrational thoughts,” said Professor Brodaty. “Visualise what you want rather than what you fear.”

Another strategy for wellbeing is not to put your head in the sand but instead confront problems. People who are more resilient are less likely to withdraw socially or turn to drugs and alcohol when stressed. 

“The COVID pandemic has changed the world,” said Professor Brodaty.

“There is no doubt it has had tragic consequences."

“But even though older people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, they have proved to be more resilient - and social connectedness is a key ingredient in bolstering resilience to better cope with adversity.”

An at-home program for the senior community: Healthy and Active for Life Online, was covered by Mariela Silveira. For more information on this or to register please click here.

Professor Henry Brodaty acknowledged the efforts of Older Persons’ Mental Health Service Clinical Manager, Daniella Kanareck, for expert delivery of the successful annual public forum for most of its 20 years.

A recording of the Forum can be accessed through the Presentations and Talks page.

All previous presentations from the Forum can be accessed here.