That’s what friends are for

Bob and Verley MacGregor love the support Bob receives through Uniting AgeWell.

By Cathy Withiel

Three mornings a week, Verley MacGregor runs into the waves at Mount Martha with a gathering of women friends, all howling like wolves.

Verley is a member of Sea Wolves, a group of up to 80 fun-loving women who arrive at the beach early, form a circle and hold hands.

Then they count down from three and, howling at the top of their lungs, run into the waves for a bracing swim.

“It’s an exhilarating experience and great fun,” Verley says.

“We all look out for each other, it’s a great group and we’re all good friends.”

Verley knows it’s also important for her husband, Bob, to have a social outlet with his circle of friends.

Bob, who has Alzheimer’s disease, has a government-funded home care package through Uniting AgeWell and receives personal care, among other services.

He also attends the Andrew Kerr Care Centre day program in Mornington twice a week, which gives Verley the opportunity to go out with her friends.

“Bob has a lovely time,” she says.

“He looks forward to going and loves the friendship and all the activities, and of course the wonderful lunches.”

These are the magic words: friendship, inclusion and fun.

Humans are social beings and, like sea wolves (which as it turns out are native to Vancouver Island), we were never meant to be socially isolated.

This truth is reflected in Uniting AgeWell’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Framework, which outlines the approach and measures the organisation is taking to support the mental health and wellbeing of its customers and staff.

This year, it is rolling out its mental health education and training program to about 4000 staff, enabling them to build mental health awareness and resilience.

This will, in turn, support the organisation’s 16,000 customers and the broader community.
The organisation places mental wellbeing on the same footing as physical health.

Uniting AgeWell General Manager Victoria, Vicky Jacques, says research shows that as you age, life can throw you a curve ball, including not being able to drive any more, retirement or the death of a loved one.

Connie Natoli, right, enjoys the social networks Uniting AgeWell encourages.

Older people’s mental wellbeing can be affected by these age-related changes, including social isolation.

Other measures Uniting AgeWell is taking to help reduce loneliness include:
* Embracing new technology that connects older people with friends and family;
* Establishing a suite of programs in residential and home care settings to reduce loneliness and increase inclusion and a sense of purpose;
* Using Do Be Feel Cards, specially developed by Uniting AgeWell and Swinburne University, to encourage people to open up about how they are really feeling; and
* Offering social connections programs to help people socialise.

Uniting AgeWell’s commitment to reducing loneliness is backed by its research into the role of technology in helping to achieve this.

Just ask centenarian Alex Reid, who has five generations of his family at the touch of a button on his iPad, thanks to the Dossy trial he’s taking part in.

Dossy is an easy-to-use video-calling app that has been designed specifically for low-vision, low-tech and hearing impaired users.

It also includes Community Connect, a function that enables the user to connect to a volunteer for a chat.
The trial is being conducted by Uniting AgeWell with the University of Melbourne, Dossy and Ageing with Grace, through funding from the Aged Care Research and Industry Innovation Australia (ARIIA) Grants Program.

Alex, who used to work as a cabbie, is never happier than when he’s chatting to family and friends and swapping stories, like his favourite yarn of how he met his late wife, Betty, at the skating rink.

“I had my eye on her all night, then I decided it was time to sweep her off her feet, literally,” he says.

“I got my mate to knock her off her skates and then I helped her up like the hero.

“We got married three weeks later.”

Ground-breaking research by Flinders University, in partnership with Uniting AgeWell, is shaping the lives of older people in Australia, after its findings were introduced as part of best practices in aged care.

The ‘A Good Life – Outcomes Measures’ research project concluded in 2022 and looked at what determines quality of life for older people living at home and in aged-care facilities, as well as developing quantitative tools to measure an individual’s wellbeing levels.

The research identified the top six findings in pursuit of happiness, two of which relate directly to social inclusion:
* Social connections – support and connection with family and friends, and carer support.
* Activities – group and independent activities, making new friends and social contact.

Italian-born nonna Connie Natoli doesn’t need a definition of happiness to know what it is.

She’s a regular at Uniting AgeWell’s Linlithgow Centre in Ivanhoe and says chatting and laughing with friends over coffee and pasta is more of a tonic than half the stuff you buy from the health store.

“We are so supportive of each other,” she laughs.

“If you’re feeling a bit down, someone will always cheer you up.

“You don’t stay feeling sorry for yourself for long.”

Alex Reid keeps in touch with his family using a video-calling app.

Penelope Anderson, who oversees operations at five AgeWell centres across metro Melbourne, including the Linlithgow Centre, firmly believes that social connection is the glue that holds us all together.

“I’ve seen some clients who are anxious or depressed and lonely when they first come to the groups,” she explains.

“Some aren’t eating well, others just want to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, to have some people to talk with and to share their news with.”

You don’t have to attend centres.

There are numerous examples of lasting friendships formed between social connection clients and volunteers who visit them at home or chat to them over the phone, friendships that help fill the void through sharing stories and interests.

Social isolation does not necessarily affect only one person living on their own: it also extends to couples and families who depend solely on each other for companionship.

This is mirrored in the personal account of Barbara and Kelvin O’Brien, who are enjoying a new lease on life since they joined a social connections group at Chadstone AgeWell Centre (St Mark’s) a year ago.

Neither of them drives and Uniting AgeWell arranges for their transport to the centre.

Kelvin loves joining the activities, while Barbara enjoys the group walk around Jells Park, followed by coffee.

Every second week they go on a bus outing to places of interest in Melbourne.

“We really enjoy ourselves,” Barbara says.

“We chat, play cards, they run trivia quizzes, we do exercises, there are singalongs, and we sometimes play darts and bowls.”

Everyone recently turned out in force to help the couple celebrate their 66th wedding anniversary at the centre.

Their daughters sent a heart-felt thankyou email to staff at the centre saying, “Our parents were so active before COVID-19 and were never home due to all the activities and socialising they did. You have given them a reason to get up each morning … they have now got a balanced life … we have noticed the complete change in their demeanour and the way they are happy to be part of your special group.”

A harsh reality is that a number of older people don’t have family or friends nearby or at all, explains Uniting AgeWell Lifestyle Director Sharon Levey.

And when they retire, the social orbit of their world can shrink even more.

“I have seen many people absolutely flourish when they enter residential aged care,” Sharon says.

“All of a sudden they are surrounded by people who care for them, there is always someone to talk to, and they feel part of a wider family and like they belong.”

Uniting AgeWell’s independent living villages also create a sense of belonging.
Residents say the villages provide the best of both worlds, namely independence and a shared community.

Many hold group lunches and barbecues, trivia evenings and card nights.

Friendships are forged and the extra support network provides great peace of mind.

Friendship, in whatever form, is just a phone call or click away.

For more information, call Uniting AgeWell on 1300 194074 or go to our social connections page 

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