Creating compassionate communities for older people

Older people are meaningful members of society, and they want to be treated that way.

That was the key message from the Bolton Clarke Research Institute’s first Symposium on Social Connection in Older Age, held in Melbourne on March 22.

The sold-out audience included researchers, service providers and older community members.

BCRI Principal Research Fellow Judy Lowthian said recreating and activating compassionate neighbourhood and communities, where people know their neighbours and are known, was a focus of significant work being done by researchers and providers.

“We all have a responsibility to proactively reach out to those who ‘aren’t in the room’ and to encourage people to reach out for help in a timely manner,” she said.

“As researchers and service providers, we also have a responsibility to work closely with older people, not just to co-create or co-design, but importantly to co-lead project and service development.

“We need to reach out to older people in places where they feel comfortable- farmers’ markets, pharmacies, the pub, the butcher, the post office, the hairdresser, the bank –  practise ‘social listening’ and let them lead the conversation about what is needed.

“Everyone has a role and has something to contribute; everyone matters to their community.”

Senior Research Fellow Rajna Ogrin is leading the Institute’s POWER project supporting older women living alone with practical initiatives that build connections and support wellbeing.

“Our society pushes older people to the side,” she said. “As a group they do not feel like integral parts of the community and many say they have lost their identity, are ignored and made to feel a burden.

“People need to feel that they have an identity, that their life has meaning, and loneliness and social isolation are symptoms of the loss of these.”

Other speakers included Dr Michelle Lim, who discussed the physiology of loneliness and social isolation, leading to poorer health and wellbeing.

Commissioner for Senior Victorians Gerard Mansour highlighted new funding to increase support for initiatives on social connection.

Dr Catherine Barrett presented as the Australian Association of Gerontology Glenda Powell Travelling Fellow on intimacy in older age. Her work aims to convey the idea that people get “differently beautiful” as they age, and older people should be supported to comfortably connect with all community members.

Professor Barry Golding spoke of the Men’s Sheds initiative he started which has now developed into 1000 Men’s Sheds nationally, while Danny Vadasz from the Health Issues Centre discussed the centre’s work using social listening to bring change for diverse, vulnerable and hard to reach people and groups.

Bolton Clarke Senior Strategist Business Innovation Matiu Bush shared local initiatives being used to build social capital and reduce isolation, including One Good Street and the Library of Aged Care Things.

The Brisbane symposium will bring together expert presenters including Professor Cath Haslam (University of Queensland), who has developed the Groups 4 Health intervention with people including residential aged care residents and older people living at home, Dr Genevieve Dingle (University of Queensland), whose projects include the Live Wires choir with retirement residents, COTA Queensland CEO Mark Tucker-Evans and Mark Bunting from the Men of League Foundation.

A second symposium will be held in Brisbane on 4 April. To find out more and register to attend, go to


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