As the holiday and festive season looms, so may the despair of a significant number within our community. For most in families, managing busy full and frantic lives, the plight of elderly persons living alone behind closed doors may skip notice. For some elderly the Christmas season holds painful memories of partners lost, of families that have left, and the season reinforces the pain of solitude, feelings of questionable self-worth and the constraints of physical limitations.
It may not represent plenty, a break from a busy life and the joy of presents being opened, but can highlight loss, loneliness and increasing vulnerability; it can be the season of added torment.
According to the 2010 NZ General Social Survey, one in three (1.02 million) adult New Zealanders felt lonely to some degree in the past four weeks. The survey also highlighted a strong relationship between a person's economic standard of living and their feelings of loneliness. Poverty and loneliness are a doubly toxic emotional mix for the elderly and vulnerable.
Older people may quickly become vulnerable to loneliness if their living situation changes dramatically such as when a partner dies. Expressions within statistics have indicated that women are more likely to feel more lonely than their male counterparts when living alone.
Modern western society generally highlights youth, consumption, and a go-get attitude based within self-motivation and self-reliance. After the first rush of retirement, the elderly may rapidly become sidelined from the hectic rush of modern life. Kiwis are also now working harder, longer and lead generally busier lives, and individuals and families may well compromise other social and community contacts.
It adds to the sum of more elderly people living isolated lives exclusive of family and community contact. Loneliness and elder despair is a hard thing to identify let alone quantify, particularly as many elderly people hold on to their independence as a crucial last controllable component of their lives, when so many other values and abilities have been lost.
The issue of elder support - not just physical and practical support but social and community connectivity and feelings of value and inclusion in modern New Zealand communities - is set to become an even greater issue. The population aged 65 years and over increased from 11 per cent of the total population in 1991 to 13 per cent in 2009. It is expected to reach 21 per cent by 2031. The number of people aged 65 years and over is projected to increase from around 550,000 in 2009 to a million in the late 2020s, when elderly persons over 65 years will outnumber children.
Statistics indicate that by 2031 the last of the "baby boomers" will have turned 65 and population ageing will begin to slow. But as the baby boomers begin turning 85 in 2031, the ageing of the population aged 65 years and over will accelerate. This will impact the ability within the elderly community to be physically able to leave homes for socialising and to access community facilities.
The number of people aged 85 years and over is projected to increase from 67,000 in 2009 to 144,000 in 2031, then more than double to about 330,000 by 2061. By 2061, people aged 85 and over will make up about one in four of the population aged 65 years and over. As physical capacity decreases, so increases the likelihood of higher portions living isolated lives within our communities.
Recent surveys indicate that older people are less likely to feel lonely when they live in a two-person household than other household sizes. However, living arrangements of two-person households change immediately on the death of a partner and often both partners live in denial of their living arrangements ever changing.
The combination of the shock of a changed living arrangement and the loss of a loving partner may exacerbate feelings of loneliness and propel elderly into profound despair and depression; especially around holiday seasons that contain a long history of sharing.
What is to be done to counter this? Simply be aware of older persons living alone around us. It is about being community-connected and reaching out on some level within busy lives to be inclusive and open to others. From a small gift of extra baking or a left-over roast meal, to simply asking how elderly are, to showing concern when you have not seen an elderly neighbour for a few days - small efforts represent a huge connection for those whose days are spent behind closed doors.
Christmas represents a time of plenty. Stepping out from a hectic life to share a moment with others need not take, but add to a life of plenty. With adequate support, the elderly walk boldly before us and we enjoy their wisdoms, personalities and presence. The greatest Christmas decoration is always a smile, after all.
Russell Hoban is an Auckland theology graduate and writer.