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Security, facilities alleviate loneliness – study

Kāpiti Coast at sunset – a popular place to retire.

Professor Christine Stephens

Living in a friendly, secure neighbourhood is one of the key ways to keep loneliness and isolation at bay in older age, according to a study of over-65s living on the Kāpiti Coast.

And aspects of neighbourhood design, like the provision of footpaths and lighting, and facilities such as transport, libraries, shops and services can also have an effect on the wellbeing of the elderly.

The Health in Ageing Research Team (HART) at Massey University’s School of Psychology has just released the findings of a study called Social Connections carried out on behalf of Age Concern Kapiti and the Kāpiti Coast District Council. 

Lead researcher Professor Christine Stephens says three quarters of the 919 respondents reported no loneliness, while a fifth reported moderate or high levels of loneliness. However, a more nuanced measure of loneliness revealed that nearly half of those who took part in the study (including Ōtaki, Waikanae, Paraparaumu, Paekakariki and Raumati) experience feelings of loneliness.  

“Although the Kāpiti Coast has long been a favourite retirement venue, the levels of loneliness reported by older residents are similar to those found in other surveys across New Zealand,” Professor Stephens says.

Marital status, health, restricted social networks, housing satisfaction, neighbourhood accessibility, neighbourhood security and neighbourhood social cohesion contributed most strongly to differences in loneliness in this sample.

But the strongest associations with loneliness were related to housing and neighbourhood perceptions. “Reports of higher satisfaction with housing, and sense of neighbourhood security, accessibility, and social cohesion (trust in neighbours) were all related to less loneliness,” the report authors say. In terms of the aspects of social life that can be changed to prevent or alleviate loneliness, being part of a positive, cohesive neighbourhood mattered more than a person’s group memberships and social activities, the study found. 

Professor Stephens says that programmes to prevent loneliness among older people generally focus on individual interventions, such as visitor programmes or friendship groups. “These findings point to the importance of the neighbourhood environment and have important implications for local and central government policy around housing and housing developments,” she says. This includes aspects of neighbourhood design like the provision of footpaths and lighting, and facilities such as transport, libraries, shops and services.

The report also emphasises that people in low socio-economic settings are more likely to live in less well-serviced neighbourhoods and these inequalities should be taken into account. 

Different kinds of loneliness 

Researchers used two established measures of loneliness. The first – the UCLA Loneliness Scale –showed 76.9 per cent of respondents reported no loneliness, while 21.4 per cent reported moderate or high levels of loneliness. However, using the more nuanced De Jong Gierveld Loneliness Scale, which ­distinguishes between social loneliness (the lack of people and friends around you) and emotional loneliness (the lack of intimate relationships or confidantes), nearly half of respondents reported moderate to high levels of loneliness. 

“When we examined emotional and social loneliness separately, we found a difference in the incidence of these aspects of loneliness. Almost 35 per cent reported some social loneliness while only 14 per cent reported some emotional loneliness. These different categories provide some indication of the different types of support that could be provided for those with different loneliness needs: either more socialising, or more intimate support,” the report’s authors say.

Ages ranged from 65 to 98 across the sample, but age was not related to loneliness and nor was gender. Participants were selected randomly from the electoral roll, and the survey did not distinguish between people living independently and those in retirement villages. The study was funded by the Massey University Research Fund.

Dermot Whelan, manager of Age Concern Kapiti, says the survey findings will help his organisation to address issues related to loneliness. “We now have an indication of the extent of loneliness among older people in Kāpiti and the impact social isolation can have.  It was very interesting for us that the strongest associations with loneliness were found among housing and neighbourhood perceptions such as neighbourhood security, accessibility and trust.”

The HART team is planning further research in 2020 to learn more about the ways in which neighbourhoods are associated with loneliness and social connections.

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