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  • 01 August 2018
  • 6 min read

Can we combat loneliness in care homes?

  • Mark Redmond
    Senior Lecturer Health & Social Care, University of Gloucestershire

Mark Redmond suggests simple improvements Home Managers can make to avoid isolation and loneliness in residential settings.

At this time of year, more attention is paid to older people and loneliness.

Popular images and campaigns depict loneliness as an older person living on their own in a cold and empty house.

However, loneliness isn't just being on your own.

You can be in a crowd and still be alone.

So, can loneliness occur in residential settings?

Tim Owen’s Blog identifies that loneliness can be just as common, and destructive in residential homes as in an isolated flat in the city.

It can happen at different stages from when someone first begins living in the home, to throughout their time there, such as when a friend dies.

This blog has helped me develop a new way of looking at ‘super homes' and retirement ‘communities’ that are being created across the UK, and made me wonder whether they are actually reinforcing isolation and loneliness rather than being remedy to it.

Some of these developments are in danger of becoming ‘gilded ghettos’ where rather than encouraging people to live in normal mixed aged communities, older people are wrapped up in an artificial world.

As such I begin to look askance at the idea of retirement communities with their own pubs and cinemas.

What is wrong with the ones in the local high street?

These developments are potentially dangerous and make me wonder where, and how, the staff who service these separated facilities, actually live.The chances are they are miles away and cannot readily appear when pressure is high.

Successful smaller schemes are cropping up throughout the UK, designed to bring residential and nursing home residents closer to the people living in the towns and villages in which they are located.

These schemes are authentic and help maintain existing friendships and associations with the area.

Organisations such as Mission Care are rooted in communities and serve everybody in the range of facilities they offer.

Community Circles

If a scheme like this seems too adventurous, it may be easier to involve residents of a home in the community.

Elsewhere in adult social care, the idea of ‘community circles is beginning to take off.

Here, the principle behind it is to look at how we might integrate and then cement a person’s involvement in the local community developing and re-discovering long forgotten interests or those that required help when none was available.

Residential homes, with the help of both staff and local volunteers active in different community groups are now beginning to establish circles of support that not only combat loneliness, they are also bringing being meaning, friendship and self-worth back into many peoples’ lives.

One idea can be looking at the benefit of having an allotment and appreciating the value of gardening for people with dementia.Growing food in pots, sowing seeds and bulbs need not be onerous or heavy work, yet watching plants grow can be fun, inclusive and engaging.

It can be even more fulfilling if the allotment is shared with a local school, providing an opportunity for different generations to meet and learn from each other.

These schemes are likely to promote a sense of community that is both purposeful and authentic, and as such are more likely to bring people together to reduce isolation and loneliness.

Chickens

Of course, sometimes these are difficult to organise or manage.In this case I have to recommend my favourite scheme by far; some homes have demonstrated the power of chickens in overcoming loneliness.

Caring for chickens started in countries like Australia, but they have become popular around the world.

A simple pet, that requires little care, but which enjoys companionship (both human and chicken), creates amusement and naturally brings people together.

I have seen examples of chicken projects tackle male isolation in retirement housing complexes, but in most situations, the men have made room for women too providing a great excuse for conversation and discussion.

Although chickens require little maintenance, the act of cleaning out their coop is a good opportunity for people to come together to complete a simple task, whilst the less able can join in by sitting and watching with the chicken on their lap.

Of course, chickens need not be the only animal you might use; rabbits and guinea pigs can be a suitable alternative, although they come without the added bonus of fresh eggs, and with a responsibility to ensure that they are all the same sex!

So what do you with any extra eggs; use them to bring the community into the home via cooking and various activities at different times of the year (especially Easter).

Vibrant communities with meaningful activities will stave off loneliness and promote those senses identified above.

I would strongly urge you to bring a few chickens into the home and it will bring a smile to everyone’s face.

If you don’t have the room to keep chickens, here are some other ideas for developing strategies against loneliness:

● Don't just invite the vicar in to see the residents, invite the church in for a regular Sunday service.

● If you are losing local services such as a village post office, open one up in your home. You won’t need much room and it can make the home become the hub of the local community.

● Invite the local WI in to have a regular coffee morning which residents can attend.

● Get involved with a local history project or museum and encourage schools to participate in an oral history project with local residents.

● The centenary of the end of World War I is coming up, as is women’s suffrage. Residents will be able to tell tales of how it affected their family, irrespective of whether they were there or not. History is great for people with dementia, and provides them with a sense of contributing to something.

Some of these ideas have a range of positive consequences.

They bring meaning and value to older residents, and are a great marketing opportunity for the home, providing a unique way of recruiting potential staff.

Think outside the box; I know you won’t regret doing something similar!

    • Mark Redmond
      Senior Lecturer Health & Social Care, University of Gloucestershire

    About the author

    • Mark Redmond
      Senior Lecturer Health & Social Care, University of Gloucestershire

    For more than 30 years Mark has worked across higher education and adult social care in practice, research and consultancy settings. He is passionate about thinking about ‘doing’ social care differently, and creating new structures that maximizes opportunities for all involved in the care exchange.