Their age gap runs into the decades but Allie Carr and Valerie Widdowson’s friendship is as close as they come.
- Red Cross runs a volunteer buddy program to reduce loneliness among elderly people and those living with a disability or mental illness
- Loneliness can contribute to poorer health, including depression and anxiety and even premature death
- The national initiative Ending Loneliness Together wants to see a national strategy to end problematic loneliness in Australia
“We phone a lot, we discuss things on the phone and then she comes and she brings me avocados and all sorts of things,” Ms Widdowson said.
They met through the Red Cross community visitors scheme, which pairs a volunteer with a participant who is either elderly, living with a disability or recovering from mental illness.
The two women initially bonded over a shared enjoyment of reality television.
“I immediately felt like Val is the 90-year-old version of me,” Ms Carr said.
“I don’t have my mum so for me it makes me feel like I’ve got that, so that’s a really special thing.
Ms Carr takes her friend shopping, buys her necessities and includes her in family celebrations.
Ms Carr said that participating in the program benefited her as much as it did Ms Widdowson.
“Val’s a 90-year-old woman who’s lived this incredible life, but she’s still a woman,” Ms Carr said.
“We talk about men and sex and I feel like that’s really important, that when I’m older I don’t want to be treated like I’m a child, I want to be treated like someone who’s valued and had this incredible life and experiences.”
Ms Widdowson said loneliness was a “terrible thing”.
“It’s hidden a lot, you feel you can’t connect with people,” Ms Widdowson said.
“But this type of thing is so good for us all.”
Poor health linked to loneliness
Research shows loneliness can contribute to poor health outcomes, such as sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression and even premature death.
Evidence suggests people who are lonelier show poorer cardiovascular health indicators, such as elevated blood pressure, elevated levels of cholesterol and impaired cardiac function.
The Red Cross buddy program aims to combat the impacts of loneliness.
“We really see that loneliness in the older population,” Red Cross Hobart coordinator Nadia Reynolds said.
In 2017, then-aged care minister Ken Wyatt told the National Press Club that up to 40 per cent of people in aged care homes never get visitors.
Ms Reynolds said the program had seen wonderful connections built between volunteers and older participants.
“They’ve gone from having little to no interaction with people who have common interests to having a lot of interaction with people who are happy to talk about the things that they love and enjoy,” Ms Reynolds said.
The next public health priority
A national initiative called Ending Loneliness Together is aimed at reducing loneliness in Australia.
The initiative released a white paper in November 2020 to get industry, government and academia to work together to gather more evidence about loneliness in Australia and increase community awareness and support.
The white paper revealed that in surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019, one in four Australians reported experiencing “problematic levels of loneliness”.
During the peak of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, one in two Australians reported feeling lonelier since the onset of the pandemic.
The chair of Ending Loneliness Together, Michelle Lim, says a national strategy to combat loneliness is essential.
Dr Lim said there continued to be a stigma around admitting to being lonely, and that needed to change.
“We need to actually make loneliness a word that is no longer stigmatised and that’s commonly spoken about,” Dr Lim said.
Dr Lim said many countries were identifying loneliness as the next public health priority, with some such as Japan and the UK appointing ministers for loneliness.
“What we’re trying to focus on is increasing our understanding of what this issue is within Australia, so we do have to build the evidence base of loneliness research within Australia, but also community awareness,” she said.