Research projects

Social isolation in older adults

Principal researchers

Meghan Bond, Peter Howden, and Nikki Ralston

Institution       

Roberts Evaluation Pty Ltd

Funding         

$61,000

Co-funded with     

The Movember Foundation

Award type   

Request for Tender

Project completion year      

2014

Project brief  

Social isolation is a well-established risk factor for depression and anxiety. Conversely, social connections are shown to be protective factors that can prevent against and reduce the severity of these conditions. Older adults are at greater risk of becoming isolated due to a range of physical, social and structural factors. Isolation is a growing issue in the Australian older adult population, particularly due to care models that mean people stay in their homes longer. Through a literature review commissioned by beyondblue in 2014, it was found that there is a large number of programs in Australia aiming to address this issue but information on these programs is not available to older adults and their families, carers and care service providers in a consumer-friendly and consolidated format. This lack of information is a barrier to social connectedness for many older adults.

beyondblue commissioned this research project to: 

  • understand the current policy frameworks for addressing social isolation and loneliness and get an overview of social connectedness initiatives for older adults that are currently underway in Australia and noteworthy international initiatives
  • identify success factors for improving mental health through social connectedness initiatives
  • identify any research evidence relating to use of the internet and social networking technology as a means to ameliorate social isolation and loneliness in older adults and understand the extent to which it is being utilised in Australia
  • develop recommendations for beyondblue to help guide strategic planning for future activities in this space.

Outcomes

The report outlines observations and recommendations arising from a review of the current literature, three international and three Australian cases and an initiative/project mapping process. Key findings are as follows:

  • There are a large number of programs in Australia addressing the social connectedness of older adults (either directly or indirectly) but there is no national policy framework or strategy for addressing this issue.
  • Programs and services operate independently from each other and any collaboration and information sharing occurs informally or ad-hoc, facilitated by the professional networks of individuals rather than through formal structures or agreements. 
  • There is a lack of consolidated, publically available information on the programs available to older adults in Australia, making it difficult for older adults to find and participate in programs that meet their social needs.
  • While there is limited empirical academic evidence about what works to improve the connectedness of older adults, several common success factors were identified in the literature. These include:
    • sustainability – ensuring programs can continue after funding periods end
    • community integration – tailoring to specific community needs and leveraging existing resources
    • targeting specific populations – ensuring the target audience and desired outcome is clearly stated during program design
    • co-production with the target population – involving older adults in the program design and ongoing delivery
    • focusing on prevention/promotion of protective behaviours – seeking to sustain and build connections of older people to prevent them becoming severely isolated and/or depressed.

Opportunities for beyondblue to make a positive contribution in this space include:

  • facilitating national inter-agency collaboration and information sharing

  • raising public awareness of the importance of social connections in protecting mental health

  • promoting (and advocating for) the existing good practice programs on offer for older adults in Australia

Additionally, the report also provides some higher-level observations, or themes over and above the success factors reported above:

  1. Raise awareness of existing programs with a focus on prevention and promoting protective behaviours
  2. Ensure, where possible, that projects are sustainable and can provide continuity
  3. Increase the evidence base on success factors
  4. Find a balance between a targeted and a multi-faceted approach
  5. Ensure initiatives are integrated into communities and existing programs
  6. Co-production can increase the chances of project success

As a result of this research beyondblue developed Connections matter, a free information booklet to help older people improve their social networks and stay socially active. 

Connections matter is available to download or order in hard copy.

Read more

Download the final report

Download or order Connections matter