After Gail Nell's husband died two years ago she shut herself away in her home.

"I got a sort-of depression after he died and I just wanted to be by myself," said the 74-year-old, who lives alone in Onehunga.

Her daughter-in-law eventually intervened and signed her up for an activity programme for older, socially-isolated people at Royal Oak Baptist Church hall.

Nell now goes there every Monday for morning tea and lunch, and to play board games.

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"It's wonderful," she said. "I look forward to a Monday all week. Because I'm around people. I'm a people person. And I was letting myself down. It helps you, to get through it and focus myself on me now and not my late husband."

The day programme is run by non-profit organisation Communicare, which was set up 60 years ago for disabled or traumatised soldiers returning from World War II.

Communicare, along with several similar organisations, has an uncertain future. The Auckland District Health Board has cut its part-funding for five day programmes which provide general activities for older people. Day programmes in Waitemata and Counties Manukau have also lost funding. Meanwhile, three programmes which offer activities for people with dementia will keep their ADHB funding.

The affected organisations say if they can't urgently find alternative funding they will reduce their services or close down altogether. They say this is devastating at a time when the negative effects of loneliness are coming into sharper focus.

"To close it down would be a stupid mistake," said Nell. "The elderly people look forward to it. Some of us haven't got partners and families, and you go from joy into your little rut again. This brings you out of that rut every week."

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has specifically referred to loneliness as one area the Government could address through its "wellbeing" approach.

"I look forward to Monday every week." Members of the Communicare day programme at Royal Oak Baptist Church meet up once a week for morning tea, games, and exercise. Photo / Dean Purcell

University of Auckland Professor Merryn Gott, who specialises in ageing and end-of-life care, said it was well-accepted that social isolation was a public health issue in New Zealand. There was also growing evidence that it was linked to physical health, with some research comparing its effect to obesity.

Gott said there was less evidence, however, on the best ways to treat loneliness.

The ADHB said it was working on identifying and addressing social isolation. But it is sceptical about the merits of funding day programmes. Director of funding Debbie Holdsworth said the DHB wanted to prioritise funding "for services that have a strong evidence base" and that addressed specific health concerns.

ADHB funding of $108,000 makes up a third of Communicare's budget and without that contribution it will struggle to continue.

Communicare general manager Sudha Bhana said weekly gatherings - which cost $6 - had become a family for many of the members. For some of them, it was the only time they had a conversation or shared a meal.

Shanti Niwas, which runs day programmes for around 300 elderly migrants in Auckland, has also lost around $100,000 in funding.

Onehunga widow Gail Nell says she looks forward to her Monday outing all week. Photo / Dean Purcell
Onehunga widow Gail Nell says she looks forward to her Monday outing all week. Photo / Dean Purcell

"They are killing us," said general manager Nilima Venkat. "If that funding is not there, we will just have to close down."

Shanti Niwa also provides emergency housing and elder abuse services, which have maintained their funding. But these services depend on the day programme because that is where the housing and abuse issues are first detected.

"They have this notion that social isolation is not a big problem anymore," said Venkat. "But it will come back to bite them."

Holdsworth said the funding changes, which came after a review in 2017, were not made lightly.

"We know people value and enjoy attending day activity programmes, but as a district health board we are responsible for using precious health resources to most effectively improve health outcomes in our communities," she said.

She said there were many other day programmes in the area which did not depend on DHB funding.

Bhana said her members had small budgets and limited transport options, and were unlikely to easily switch to other programmes.

"We run for people who can't afford to go on cruise ships or go to a golf club," she said.

LONELY? HOW TO GET HELP
Seniorline is a directory of community programmes for older people, including day activities. Go to www.seniorline.org.nz or call 0800 725463 or 09 3754395.