Let me ask you two questions. What happens after we retire and the social interaction of our working life ends? What plans have you made to ensure you will remain socially connected and engaged?
Over the last twenty years I have noticed one of the most challenging concepts for retirees to recognise and plan for, beyond the world of work, has been social connectedness.
Work keeps us busy during the day, and also afterwards as we socialise with colleagues. These relationships are often a result of proximity and don’t always endure after your work circumstances change.
Research establishes that being socially connected is vital for physical and emotional wellbeing. Australians may be more connected than ever before through social media, but according to Relationships Australia we are in the midst of a “loneliness crisis”.
Feelings of loneliness can affect anyone at any time, whether you are a successful business-person or recently retired, a working or stay-at-home mum or somewhere in between. Most of us will have, at some stage in our lives, experienced feeling lonely and alone despite being in a room full of people.
A recent OmniPoll survey revealed most Australians have half the amount of close friends they did just ten years ago, and some would argue the rise in popularity of social media has contributed to this trend.
Men are more at risk of social isolation than women, with 40 per cent having ‘low levels of connection’ and 15 per cent found to have no close friends outside of their long-term relationship.
Imagine then, how easy it is for someone to become socially isolated in retirement if divorce, disease or death takes away the companionship of their significant other.
For Katanning farmer Brent Ladyman, it is Alzheimer’s disease that has taken away the day to day companionship of his business partner and wife, Elizabeth.
Brent is a local identity and a bit of a larrikin. The volunteer fire fighter and former breakfast radio presenter talks down his achievements in typical Aussie bloke style.
Yet when asked what it has been like living alone on the farm where he and Liz raised their children, he is quiet for a moment.
“The loneliness is terrible,” he said,
“It’s made worse by still living on the farm.”
Brent grew up on the family farm, 25kms from town, learning the tools of the trade from his parents. The third generation farmer has spent most of his working life looking after the cropping, leaving the sheep enterprise to Liz, who Brent says had a keen eye for stock, something he never inherited.
Liz also kept the farm diary, and it is entries in this diary that showed the subtle signs of changes occurring in her brain that were otherwise fairly undetectable.
Brent said, “Looking back now, I can pick out little things from as early as 2010,”
“It was when her writing really deteriorated in 2012 that I took copies of the diary to a specialist. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.”
Even after her diagnosis, Brent says they were both in denial for some time, recalling how Liz would shrug off memory lapses as “no big deal”.
Brent made the decision to lease the farm in 2013, allowing him more time to look after Liz whose eyesight and speech were starting to be affected by the condition. Caring for a person with dementia can be a difficult and lonely time for carers as they struggle with the demands of looking after a loved one.
Brent is very grateful for the support of local health professionals, one of whom would provide respite by visiting Liz at the farm.
“It helped a lot,” he said,
“The support worker would drive out to the farm and take Liz into town for a coffee,
“I would spend that time doing something I enjoy like restoring old cars.”
Farmers are a practical bunch. In true form Brent said the decision to give up caring for his wife was not hard. Liz’s eyesight and speech continued to deteriorate and Brent realised she needed someone who could look after her 24 hours a day.
“You do the best you can, but I couldn’t keep her safe anymore,”
“I knew when the time came it had to be done.”
Liz is now in full time care.
Brent has always been engaged in his community – only recently stepping down as president of the local Rotary Club. The local community now provides the friendship and connection necessary to overcome the loneliness associated with living alone in a house that was once so full of life.
“And I have a few mates who drop in for a beer every now and then.”
Our golden years should be a rich time in our lives but, just as in other periods of life, the bumps are as much a part of life as the smooth sailing. As you consider life beyond work, give some thought to how connected you are, and plan to try new things and make new friends to ensure you remain socially and emotionally connected and nourished.
If you are concerned about dementia, please contact Alzheimer’s WA on 1300 66 77 88.
Reduce your risk of becoming socially isolated
- Become a volunteer
- Know your neighbours
- Join a new club or group
- Start a hobby
- Get a pet