In short:

A community program is helping older South Australians to form meaningful social connections and tackle loneliness.

Behavioural scientist Nadia Corsini says one-third of Australians feel lonely some or all of the time, up from one in four prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s next?

Dr Corsini says loneliness needs to be addressed throughout life to reduce the chances of older people feeling lonely.

Constance Hall certainly is not alone in life.

The 77-year-old from Adelaide has a supportive family with three children and nine grandchildren, but most of them live interstate or overseas.

The former fashion designer has battled cancer, gone through a separation, and lives with injuries from a car crash three decades ago that limit her movement.

And as the years have gone by, and her world has become a little smaller, a “terrible” loneliness has crept in.

“I make the most of it and I’ve got my little rescue dog, Lilly, so she keeps me company,” she said.

Also keeping Constance company is regular catch ups with Suzanne Warren-Smith, a volunteer for the Council on the Ageing (COTA) visitors program that connects people with older South Australians at risk of social isolation or loneliness.

Suzanne Warren-Smith started volunteering after moving to Adelaide a little over a year ago.(ABC News: Justin Hewitson)

They first met a year ago, and now count each other as close friends.

“Meeting Suzanne was the best thing in my life,” Ms Hall said.

“We clicked instantly. We had a really good connection, and all we do is have laughs, and that’s the best medicine.”

Ms Warren-Smith moved to Adelaide from Brisbane with her husband and son a little over a year ago, and not knowing many people in her new city, signed up to volunteer.

“I’ve got a teenager now and I only work part-time, so I feel a bit isolated sometimes not knowing anyone in Adelaide,” she said.

“So it’s been a really big impact on my life to come and visit Constance.

“You can still have people around you, I have a husband and a child who lives with me, but you can still feel a bit lonely if you don’t have friends to connect to.”

Loneliness ‘as damaging’ as smoking

University of South Australia behavioural scientist Nadia Corsini said one-third of Australians feel lonely some or all of the time, up from one in four people feeling lonely prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Loneliness is a feeling that your need for social connection isn’t being met,” Dr Corsini said.

She added that loneliness is “really subjective”.

“The number of connections that one person needs is maybe very different to another person, and we can really feel lonely surrounded by people,” she said.

Nadia Corsini says social connection is ‘critical’ to health and wellbeing.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

“Loneliness is as damaging to our health as smoking, and when we experience loneliness it’s really our bodies telling us to pay attention.”

Young people are struggling the most to make quality social connections, with 91 per cent of South Australians aged 18 to 29 reporting experiencing loneliness often or sometimes, according to a report by Uniting Communities.

Dr Corsini said what’s known as transition phases in our lives — such as the shift from schooling to work, becoming a parent, or moving from work into retirement — pose unique challenges that can increase the risk of loneliness.

“So, we need to address loneliness across the life course in order to change the trajectory so that we reduce the chances of a number of older people finding themselves lonely,” she said.

Dr Corsini said that requires strategies at policy and community level to ensure access to spaces that support social connections as well as efforts to reduce the stigma associated with loneliness.

“It’s a massive problem, that’s why raising awareness and having a conversation about loneliness is one of the most important things we can do,” Dr Corsini said.

“Loneliness is really normal; most people will experience loneliness at some point.”

For Ms Hall and Ms Warren-Smith, the visitor program has helped ease their burdens of social isolation one catch up at a time.

“It’s just been amazing,” Ms Warren-Smith said.

“It gives me someone to visit. I don’t have a social group in Adelaide here, so I don’t feel like it’s work or anything like that, I’m visiting a friend.

“We have a good laugh, I really enjoy it.

Constance Hall also has carers who support her to live at home in Adelaide.(ABC News: Justin Hewitson)

“I think Constance is stuck with me now, I’m not going anywhere, she’s become like part of my family, a big part of my life.”

Ms Hall said Ms Warren-Smith is like “a baby sister” to her.

“I just think how many lonely people like I was myself and how they are managing, and I feel frustrated because I can’t help them,” Ms Hall said.

“Put your hand up, reach out, there is so much help out there.”

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