A community’s impact on loneliness

There’s an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child; in many ways, a village can also help people guard against, or conquer, loneliness. 

There’s no doubting the impact your closest relationships can have, but the wider community can also play a role in fighting this critical issue. 

According to Ending Loneliness Together, those who live alone, and those who have less frequent contact with neighbours or interact with fewer people in their communities, are more likely to experience feelings of loneliness

The Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey revealed higher levels of interaction with neighbours, friends and family, and expressing feelings of community trust, protects against loneliness. Stuart Torrance, Men’s Health Project Officer at the Australian Men’s Shed Association — an organisation that promotes and supports 1200 Men’s Sheds across the country — has first-hand experience with many men who have experienced loneliness after retiring.

Instead of enjoying what they’d previously assumed would be a relaxed, fun-filled retirement, many struggled until they found connection in a community. 

“A lot of the men have just retired, or had been retired two or three years,” he says. “And that dream of playing golf every weekend or going fishing, for example, had sort of diminished. It was like, ‘I can’t do this forever. What else is there to do?’ 

“And the comments that came from these members were very frequently (things like) ‘if it wasn’t for the shed, I don’t think I’d be here’. They were talking about taking their own life, talking about going crazy. 

“These guys were withdrawing from community. They were actually making themselves lonely. But once they got into a shed, they could participate and engage (with other people) and you could see their life almost go full circle, going back to (living) a proactive life.”

The Australian Government’s Department of Veterans’ Affairs has several programs in place to help returned servicemen and women, including the Men’s Health Peer Education program which encourages men to share responsibility for their own health and wellbeing.

Lew MacLeod, one of the program’s coordinators, says many returned veterans crave connection. 

“Veterans in particular form strong social bonds and connections with their peers through adversity and in combat. When that link is broken, it is very well documented that this breakdown can (increase risks of) social isolation (and) mental, physical and social issues. 

“I’ve found the act of ‘being there’ at veteran functions and just talking with lonely individuals has had a positive outcome on their life perspective and direction.”

How communities can help

So, what can communities do to help? 

In short, plenty. Ending Loneliness Together states “local communities certainly have a vital role to play in reducing the emergence and impact of loneliness.

“The possibilities here might include community gardening, land care groups, walking and cycling groups, community choirs, book clubs, adult learning classes, surf lifesaving clubs, volunteering opportunities … the list goes on!” 

Griefline sees six key opportunities for communities to help guard against loneliness, according to counsellor Bryan Petheran. These are:

  1. Create opportunities for social connection: organise events, activities, and clubs that bring people together, particularly those who may be isolated or have difficulty forming connections
  2. Promote awareness: educate the community about the impact of loneliness on mental and physical health and encourage people to reach out to those who may be struggling
  3. Provide resources: offer resources such as support groups, counselling services, or volunteer opportunities that can help individuals build relationships and connect with others
  4. Foster inclusivity: create an inclusive and welcoming environment where everyone feels accepted and valued, regardless of their background or circumstances
  5. Reach out: encourage community members to check in on their neighbours, particularly those who live alone or may be experiencing hardship, to offer support and connection. Think about ways to reduce stigma about loneliness; men can often feel uncomfortable about reaching out and discussing their loneliness with others
  6. Support vulnerable populations: identify vulnerable populations — such as the elderly, people with disabilities, those experiencing homelessness or those who have experienced a major life event like the death of a spouse, or a relationship break-up — and provide resources and services to help them build connections

There has been some progress at community levels in recent years. The City of Greater Bendigo in Victoria has targeted social connection, the reduction of loneliness, and community participation and belonging, in its five-year healthy living strategy. In Queensland, the state government has encouraged community organisations and not-for-profits to tackle isolation and loneliness in their communities as part of a $4-million grants program.

What about ‘digital’ communities?

For most of us, socialising in-person should be prioritised over online interactions, but there are other options.

For example, Australian not-for-profit Friends for Good runs Friend Line, a phone service allowing people to have an anonymous chat with a volunteer. 

The Country Network — which promotes and fosters networking and friendship among maleidentifying members of the LGBTIQ+ community in Australia — hosts Zoom sessions each week for members living in regional or rural areas. It’s an important way to help people connect even if physical distance is an issue, says the network’s president Jeffrey Sproal.

“Many rural gay men do not have the friendship base living locally that they can turn to in times of need,” he says. “Their nearest gay contact may be up to four or five hours away. “So we have a Zoom session each week and many country folk join in for friendship and a chat. Over the course of time, one gets to meet fellow ‘Zoomers’ at an Annual General Meeting or a luncheon organised in the area.” 

So-called ‘digital communities’ can assist some people, but they can be a double-edged sword.

“Technology is here to stay, but it’s more about how we use technology to our advantage,” she says. 

“As consumers of technology, we should (look to use it) to facilitate more meaningful social connections and allow us to build the quality of relationships that we need.” 

Social media can also pose challenges, especially to younger people. Headspace National Clinical Advisor Rupert Saunders says: “social media can exacerbate feelings of loneliness, as young people may make comparisons between their own life and the life of others based on what they see when scrolling.

How to overcome community barriers

For those living in remote communities, the challenge to create meaningful connections is often more difficult — someone working on a farm 100km away from their neighbour faces greater barriers than someone living in a city. 

However, all is not lost, says Torrance. One scenario that often pops up at the Men’s Sheds Association is farmers not seeing the need to tinker in someone else’s shed when they have countless other tasks at their farm. 

“The reply we often get from these blokes is ‘I have a big shed on my own — I’ve got more projects than you can poke a stick at’,” Torrance says. “And my reply to them is, ‘yeah, but who else is in your shed with you?’ 

“And they might say ‘well, I can’t drive an hour into town to go to the shed.’ And my reply might be ‘but you have a neighbour on the property next door – how about once a week you helped each other out in your sheds’?”

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