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There’s been quite a lot of discussion in the news recently about older people experiencing loneliness. There are a number of factors linked to this, people are living longer, which is good, but haven’t been able to maintain close friendships and family relationships, where they are no longer in work, or they live a long way from their family. The issue is particularly prevalent amongst men, who are now living nearly as long as women, but have been traditionally less good at making friendships. This is also a significant issue for people with mental health problems. A survey by SANE organisation in Australia found half the people surveyed with mental illness had no close friends at all.
The potential consequences of having no friends are pretty clear to see:
- Lack of friendships may mean people becoming more prone to depression.
- Having no-one to turn to in a crisis can cause us to lose confidence.
- Physical and social contact can improve our self-esteem and well-being.
- Activities are more easily undertaken and enjoyed if there is someone to share them with.
What can health and social care workers do about this? Well clearly it’s very difficult to make friends for other people. One of the other problems that often presents itself to health and care workers, is service users starting to regard care workers as best friends. These are difficult boundary issues, yes your role may include one of ‘befriending’, but to become a friend may not be in the staff member’s or service user’s best interests. What happens if staff change jobs? What happens if service users contact staff outside working hours? This perhaps goes to the heart of what a friend is. The dictionary definition suggests a bond of mutual affection, but I think our definition of a close friendship would be stronger than that, it’s someone we think we could turn to if we were stuck in a really difficult situation.
So I’ve given some of the problems of care workers finding friendships for service users, and really the answer to this is to create opportunities for friendships to be fostered. That might include finding groups in the local area that pursue particular interests or hobbies, or it might mean starting one yourself. Traditional models of day care and support have been around day centres and day hospitals, but much of the focus of personalising care services over the last few years, is that these traditional centres have disappeared and service users have been encouraged to pursue ‘mainstream activities.’ Of course in many ways it’s not the activity that’s important, it’s the opportunity to meet other people, and gain strength from mutual support.