Originally published on couriermail.com.au and reproduced here with permission.

When Nellie Luyten moved to Fraser Shores in Hervey Bay, she found more than a new home, she found a community.

The 83-year-old had been living independently in her family home, an acre block in nearby rural Tinana, when she started to feel isolated. “Someone suggested Fraser Shores and it looked very nice so I said, ‘I’ll go and have a look’ and that’s what I did,” she said.

“It makes life easier. I’ve got lovely neighbours and everybody else I meet is nice, so what more could I want.”

Why local social connections are critical

Maintaining a community and social connections is critical across the lifespan and especially as people age.

Loneliness is increasingly considered a public health issue, with 2020 US research from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine indicating a 50 per cent increased risk of dementia from social isolation, and higher risks of heart disease (29 per cent increased risk) and stroke (32 per cent rise) from poor social relationships.

The United Kingdom and Japan have created Ministries of Loneliness, in a bid to build social structures that support greater engagement.

Neighbours and people located close by can be especially important to a sense of community.

Research from the Australian National University found neighbourhood relationships and social connection protected against loneliness, depression and anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic.

They found the “social glue” of a neighbourhood supported wellbeing and health.

It’s something that Mrs Luyten has experienced since moving to Fraser Shores retirement village in April. When she moved in, she immediately threw herself into activities, and found other like-minded residents.

She plays mahjong weekly, takes computer classes, and attends the Thursday night dinners and other events put on by the social club. “Every time I can go, I will go,” she said. “I’m not that lonely anymore. I love it here.”

Preventing social isolation

Relationships Australia National Executive Officer Nick Tebbey said there was rising social isolation across the Australian community. “We had seen trends long before the pandemic hit us that people reported feeling more socially isolated and they reported feeling more lonely,” he said.

“It’s really concerning because of the health impacts that we know loneliness has.”He said critical junctures in people’s lives, such as retirement or moving home, could change their social interaction.

Retirement villages could be good enablers for social connection, he said, because they often went “above and beyond to create opportunities for people to connect”. But he said it was up to the individual’s belief about their situation.

“It’s not necessarily what is there, but what is lost,” he said.

As to why there was rising social isolation, Mr Tebbey said society had perhaps evolved to prioritise “getting things done” than “taking the time to have a chat”.

“People are busy,” he said. “You get this general sense of busyness right across the board that stops people from taking the time. Being socially connected is an investment in time and energy.

“It’s easier to let (social activities) drop off than our work commitments, our family commitments.”

In order to overcome Australia’s social isolation challenge, Relationships Australia hosts the Neighbours Every Day initiative to provide practical tips for people to get involved.

“It’s something that we need to be working on every day, taking small but regular actions to get to know the people around us,” he said.

“If we know the people in our community, we have a greater sense of belonging. It helps us feel a greater sense of connection and it also helps those around us.”

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