Nearly one in three older New Zealanders spend their days alone, data compiled for the Herald on Sunday reveals.
Age Concern is struggling to cope with a record number of requests for help, and has urged New Zealanders to check on older neighbours, some of whom live in "misery".
"The older person is the one that misses out because of the fact that everyone has to work," said Sue Campin, who runs the West Auckland visiting service.
"You can't pay a mortgage off on one wage now. We see interested families, good families. They just don't have the time."
Older people needing support while living at home are assessed by district health boards. This comprehensive "interRAI" clinical data is then aggregated, and information released to the Herald on Sunday gives a detailed picture of social isolation across the country.
Nationally, 30 per cent of the nearly 37,000 seniors assessed last year reported they spent eight hours or more alone during the day.
In Auckland DHB's catchment, 28 per cent spend their days alone, compared to 35 per cent for Capital and Coast DHB, and 44 per cent for Lakes DHB.
Another measure is loneliness. Nationally, 22 per cent felt lonely. Waitemata, MidCentral and Whanganui DHBs had the highest proportion of lonely seniors, at 28 per cent.
Campin has co-ordinated West Auckland's visiting service, which arranges for volunteers to visit older people who feel socially isolated, for 15 years, and said isolation was growing.
The older population could be viewed as a triangle, she said. Most are doing well but for those towards the pointy end, life was "really miserable" – and that portion was growing larger.
"While you have others who have got a bit of money and their health and mobility, the time is going to come when all those people are going to move into that triangle. And that triangle is going to swell – it's going to end up being a circle because it's so swollen with people, because of the ageing population."
Forty-six per cent of people receiving home care last year lived alone. In Counties-Manukau the proportion was 34 per cent, while Whanganui was highest at 59 per cent.
Older people were also asked if there had been a decline in their participation in social, religious or other preferred activities, and if they were distressed by this. Nationally, 8 per cent fit this category.
Some of the most radical work done using interRAI data has been by Southern DHB. After the chief coroner highlighted a rise in suicides among older people, health officials there consulted academics and identified risk factors, including whether a person was left alone for more than eight hours a day.
Sharon Adler, the DHB's health of older people portfolio manager, said data was periodically checked, and service providers were asked to review support given to people identified as high risk. Often support was deemed sufficient, but "at other times they'll go, 'Oh, we kind of missed that'".
"A lot of it is really trying to understand what brings people joy … could we get someone to visit with a pet? Could they join them up with a group of people who go and watch rugby?"
Adler said people were not told if they had been identified as a suicide risk, and no formal assessment of the exercise has been done.
"Fortunately, we haven't had any people in our service who have committed suicide. On the other hand, we are not putting the intervention in for half the population and not the other half … I think it has had a positive effect on support being offered."
British Prime Minister Theresa May this year appointed a minister for loneliness, as the chief officer of Age UK warned social isolation could be worse for a person's health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Research there found 200,000 older people hadn't had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.
In New Zealand, Age Concern's Central Auckland office is getting more than 10 visiting service referrals a week, and needs volunteers. Organiser Jenny Barker interviews new clients to ensure a good match.
"We ask them what sort of person they would prefer as a visitor – male or female, what age group," Barker said. "And you know the person that says, 'Anybody' is really lonely."
A mutually beneficial cuppa
Once a week Cornelis van der Zeyden opens the door of his unit to Anne Blythe, and the kettle goes on shortly afterwards.
The routine has happened for more than four years after the friends were matched through Age Concern's visiting service.
"It makes quite a difference for me. Otherwise most of the time I am just by myself," van der Zeyden says, turning to Blythe. "I would be much more lonely if you didn't come."
Van der Zeyden is a carpenter by trade who once built his family's home. Now 84, he is a keen gardener and reader, and occasionally walks to the park at the end of his street.
Blythe said the visits weren't just for his benefit.
"I had lost both my parents, they had very difficult deaths and it was very sad … and I saw a poster on the wall, and it talked about visiting elderly people who are lonely. And I thought, 'I could do that'. I only work part-time.
"Generally we sit and have a nice chat about what's happening in the world. The election, that was a big topic … we both enjoy it. It is very mutual. It is filling a void in my life as well."
If you are interested in volunteering or know someone who could benefit from the visiting service, contact your local Age Concern office, listed online at www.ageconcern.org.nz