New champion for ageing well calls time on loneliness

Professor Ngaire Kerse has two questions for the holiday season: who made your Christmas cake? And if you know an older person who is lonely, why not invite them to share some?

“For many whānau, it’s still grandma who makes the Christmas cake or pudding – and who looks after the kids during the year so the parents can work,” says Professor Kerse, head of the School of Population Health at the University of Auckland.

“Christmas is a time to acknowledge that huge contribution older people make to the care community and to prop up the paid workforce. But equally, many of us know of an older person living alone who maybe has no family nearby and nowhere to go on Christmas Day. Older people eat 20 percent more when they eat with others.”

Professor Kerse has just been appointed the inaugural Joyce Cook Chair in Ageing Well, a role made possible by a $5 million gift to the University’s For All Our Futures fundraising campaign from Metlifecare founder Cliff Cook. Kerse is recognised as an international expert in maximising health and reducing falls for older people, and the impact of physical activity on development of disability. She spent many years working as a GP in residential aged care – “I love nursing homes, they’re such a place of complexity and joy” – and still practises part-time as a GP at the Auckland City Mission.

She wants to use her new role to mobilise communities, including the well elderly, to be social connectors for the ageing and lonely, with the broader goal of transforming cities and rural towns into age-friendly environments for our increasingly diverse elderly.

“If you invite an older person into your life, the rewards can be rich,” she says. “Older people can offer all sorts of wisdom and stories and laughs that you just can’t get from Google.”

Forty percent of Māori and 28 percent of non-Māori participants reported feeling lonely always, often or sometimes.

New findings from a world-first longitudinal study into advanced ageing that she co-leads with Dr Marama Muru-Lanning paints a stark picture of loneliness in old age. The Life and Living in Advanced Age, a Cohort Study in New Zealand (LiLACS NZ) is following almost 1000 people in the Bay of Plenty aged 80-plus. More than 60 percent of non-Māori women and more than half of Māori women in the study are living independently and alone. Men are more often living with a wife.

Forty percent of Māori and 28 percent of non-Māori participants reported feeling lonely always, often or sometimes. For widowed people, the figures were 46 percent (Māori) and 42 percent (non-Māori). Retirees were significantly more likely to report loneliness for Māori but not non-Māori. One in 20 participants overall reported feeling lonely always or often (5.1 percent of Māori, 5.5 percent of non-Māori).

Professor Kerse: “That’s an important five percent. Loneliness is associated with poor mental and physical health, lower quality of life, cognitive decline and even dying sooner. And it’s a problem we can do something about, as individuals and as a society.”

Risk factors for loneliness in non-Māori included saying they needed more emotional support, being always alone, having more medical conditions and experiencing pain. Protective factors included living with a spouse and saying growing older is a positive experience. Risk factors for Māori were harder to identify, and included being always or often alone. A protective factor was eating meals with someone daily.

I wish Ngaire all the best because we could do so much better by our older people. We need to change limiting perceptions and allow them to continue contributing.

Cliff Cook Metlifecare founder and University donor

Mr Cook named the Chair after his late mother, Joyce Cook, a nurse who was a pioneer in the care of the elderly and chairwoman of the Residential Care Association. “I’m thrilled that a researcher of Professor Kerse’s standing and experience has been appointed to the Chair,” he says. “It’s even more fitting that she shares with Mum a passion for aged care. I wish Ngaire all the best because we could do so much better by our older people. We need to change limiting perceptions and allow them to continue contributing.”

Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences Dean, Professor John Fraser, says Professor Kerse is the ideal person for the role. “We conducted a world-wide search and the best person happened to be right here in Auckland. Professor Kerse has an outstanding record in aged care research and a wealth of knowledge about the New Zealand setting, particularly Māori and Pacific elderly. We’re extremely grateful for Cliff Cook and his family for this wonderful donation that supports research to improve the wellbeing of our elderly.”

Professor Kerse says the demographics of our very old are changing rapidly, with growing proportions of non-Pakeha. “We need to understand the different experiences of growing old across different ethnic groups,” she says. “For example, more than 15 percent of older Māori are raising mokopuna, and more than 40 percent are in a shared parenting arrangement. For Pakeha, those figures are 2 percent and 5 percent.

“We need to be much more adaptable and nimble in the aged care sector and beyond to do well by all ethnic groups. I see a place for an advisory group or a forum made up of older people from all ethnic groups that could feed into policy and healthcare planning.”

She also wants to use her role to inspire and support groups like Eastern Bay Villages/Te Kokoru Manaakitanga in Whakatane, mostly seniors and kaumatua volunteers who act as ‘social connectors’ for the isolated elderly in their community. “They might find an older person who has become less mobile and arrange transport so he or she can keep up their hobby; or arrange home-shares, or arrange for people living in an isolated way on the same street to share dinner once a week. It’s about creating a social network that will be sustainable.”

Professor Kerse is continuing her research with LiLACS NZ, as well as a long-running research collaboration with the School of Engineering on robot companions and self-care reminders for the elderly, and starting a new trial into using exercise to prevent falls in residential care.

“I’m so grateful to Cliff Cook and the University for this opportunity to bring focus, energy and resources to deepening our understanding of ageing, giving older people a voice and working with collaborators to make things better,” she says.

“As Joyce Cook Chair in Ageing Well, I want to be a connector and catalyst to build capacity and lift awareness, and I will work with whoever wants to work with me.”

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