The role of friends in old age cannot be underestimated: socialising improves quality of life and reduces loneliness among the elderly

Thursday, 03 August 2023
In Finland, a programme that can be described as a friendship circle has been running for 16 years already. The friendship circle is a closed circle of peers who meet once a week for three months, i.e. 12 times in total. In Finland, a programme that can be described as a friendship circle has been running for 16 years already. The friendship circle is a closed circle of peers who meet once a week for three months, i.e. 12 times in total. Shutterstock

“You have to prepare for old age,” said Nina Leino, Adviser to the Finnish Association for the Welfare of Older People. How do you do it? When does a person get old in the first place?

One of the things people don’t think about when they’re younger is how to prepare for old age. They maybe start thinking about it when they reach their 50s. In fact, preparing for old age could be a normal part of planning one’s life.

“Preparing for old age increases the sense of security in older adults,” explains Leino. People then start to think more and about how not to be alone in later life and how to build a foundation for a good life after retirement.

Friendship circles have been set up to alleviate feelings of loneliness

Loneliness is one of the biggest fears when people think about old age. And it’s not just about living alone. According to Regina Sergejeva, Head of the Department of Social Welfare of the Ministry of Social Affairs, a person may also be lonely when they don’t feel connected to others or the community.

“Therefore, more thought should be given to making social and health services focus on prevention and encouraging people to be active in old age,” says Leino, who believes this would help people to be full members of society for longer.

In Finland, a programme that can be described as a friendship circle has been running for 16 years already. “The need for this programme is great and it’s much appreciated among our elderly, as it helps to combat one of the biggest fears of old age – loneliness,” says Leino. More than 12,000 elderly people have participated in the friendship circle over 16 years.

The friendship circle is a closed circle of peers who meet once a week for three months, i.e. 12 times in total. “One of the purposes of the meetings is to help the group become self-supporting – this means that the facilitators encourage participants to get together on their own initiative after the scheduled meetings,” explains Leino.

Such meetings offer older people the chance to make new friends, to find like-minded people with whom to socialise and share their joys and sorrows outside organised meetings. “The people who attend group meetings don’t just try to just improve their own situation, but they also want to make others feel less lonely,” notes Leino.

According to Leino, reducing the feeling of loneliness is the biggest advantage of group meetings. “During the meetings, this is one of the topics that people discuss together – they look at pictures, artworks related to loneliness, and they sometimes do it outdoors,” says Leino.

Friendship circles have had a positive impact over the years, with as many as nine out of ten participants saying that coming together has reduced their sense of loneliness, and six participants staying in touch with others even after the planned meetings have ended.

“The participants have felt the support of their peers and have become important to each other,” says Leino. As many as 98% of those who have participated in the friendship circles would recommend others to join them as well.

Volunteers help to support the elderly in Estonia

There is no such friendship circle in Estonia, but the project Implementation of Cooperation Model for Engagement of Volunteers in Welfare System, which is carried out by the Estonian village movement Kodukant, has been developed to alleviate the feeling of loneliness. The purpose of this project is to use the help of volunteers to support the elderly and adults with special needs, who also need extra help, support or company to cope with daily life.

“Flexible and humane support significantly helps improve the quality of life of older people and people with special needs and alleviates the feeling of loneliness,” believes Sergejeva.

“Volunteers will have more opportunities to spot a person’s need for help and inform the social worker, supporting local authorities in their prevention work,” says Sergejeva. She says it’s important to keep in mind that the contribution of volunteers can provide additional support to formal social services, but cannot replace them.

The meetings also help people with memory problems

Group meetings also have a positive effect on certain illnesses, such as dementia.

Memory problems affect not only the person with dementia, but also their partner or spouse. “We’re seeing more and more that similar group meetings, like the friendship circle, are also needed for couples,” says Leino.

And the earlier in the onset of dementia a person gets to the group meetings, the better. “It's like a window to important information – it increases confidence in decision making and ensures support from a peer,” says Leino, listing the positive aspects of group meetings.
It’s also important to know that the social workers, health professionals and volunteers involved in the group meetings have passed the required training.

People with a dementia diagnosis are being considered in Estonia as well. The Friends of Dementia programme, led by the Dementia Centre of Excellence, has been established for this purpose. “Everyone who wants to help people with memory problems can become a Friend of Dementia,” explains Sergejeva. Many people with dementia today feel they’ve been left alone with their illness and isolated from society. This is where a Friend of Dementia comes in, who can notice and support people with the condition in their family and social circle, and in public spaces.

How can you prepare for old age?

But how is it possible to prepare for old age after all? According to Leino, preparing for old age includes thinking about one’s health, which is something we actually do throughout our life. You also need to think about your own capacity to act and financial resources, i.e. set up a savings fund. “We must also not forget to ensure social relations,” adds Leino.

The state and local authorities also have a role to play. For example, cities need to think about making facilities, buildings and services suitable and accessible for people with different needs. “Diverse shopping services and a safe environment for mobility are essential for the elderly to feel like full members of society,” emphasises Leino.

It’s also important that our way of life is also friendly to the elderly – this means clear, easy to understand and accessible to older people as well. “Lifestyle must support an elderly person’s independent mobility, involvement in activities and meetings with other people,” explains Leino.

In addition to the accessibility of grocery stores and essential services, leisure facilities, including proximity to libraries, must not be overlooked either. “The organisation of public transport also plays an important role,” notes Leino.

Think about accessibility when creating your home

Leino also advises city rulers to listen to the voices of older people. “Older people need more individual support and it’s important to see the person as a whole,” emphasises Leino. It’s essential that everyone has a voice in decisions about their lives and their community throughout their lives.

It probably comes as a surprise to none of us that the most beautiful dream of all is to live the rest of our lives in our own home. This is why we should start thinking about ensuring the accessibility of home as early as possible.

Accessibility should also be considered in the design of products and services, e.g. to ensure that juice and milk cartons are easy to open.

The digital skills of the elderly, or the lack thereof, must certainly be taken into account in the digital world as well.

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