Recent research supports the idea that feeling socially isolated can impact on our physical as well as mental health (1).
One of the reasons I love running groups is that a facilitated space can help people connect with others quite deeply in a way that feels safe.
Quite simply, connecting with others feels good and is good for our health, but can become hard when we are nervous, shy, or don’t trust others because we have been subjected to violence or abuse. Sometimes poverty, transport issues or physical isolation can make it hard to see and spend time with people. Similarly mental health challenges can contribute to social isolation, because our behaviours can be seen as ‘hard to deal with’ or even just ‘unfun’, leading to social connections falling away over time, which can further add to the distress a person in crisis is experiencing.
Social connection has many benefits; a sense of mutual support, feeling less alone in times of crisis, practical support such as help with problem solving or with physical tasks, an opportunity for fun and laughter, hearing stories of other people’s inner worlds that show us we are not alone in our feelings, and more.
Some statistics out of the United Kingdom (2) show that social isolation and loneliness in older adults is widespread:
17% of older people are in contact with family, friends and neighbours less than once a week and 11% are in contact less than once a month (Victor et al, 2003)
Over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone (ONS, 2010)
Two fifths all older people (about 3.9 million) say the television is their main company (Age UK, 2014)
59% of adults aged over 52 who report poor health say they feel lonely some of the time or often, compared to 21% who say they are in excellent health (Beaumont, 2013)
The relationship between isolation and loneliness is a complex one, involving social contact, health (physical and psychological) and mood. (3)
Now we are beginning to see that poor social skills, social isolation and loneliness may also be associated with poor physical health, and pose a risk to future health in the same way that other lifestyle factors like smoking do.
“We’ve known for a long time that social skills are associated with mental health problems like depression and anxiety… But we’ve not known definitively that social skills were also predictive of poorer physical health. Two variables — loneliness and stress — appear to be the glue that bind poor social skills to health. People with poor social skills have high levels of stress and loneliness in their lives.” says Chris Segrin, head of the UA Department of Communication (4).
The good news is that social skills can be learnt, and new patterns of relationship can be developed.
So what do we do about this?
Lifeline suggests the following actions if you are feeling lonely:
Connect or reconnect with friends and family – staying in contact with loved ones can prevent loneliness and isolation. If your family don’t live nearby, technology can help you stay in touch
Get out and about – regular outings for social functions, exercise, visiting friends, doing shopping, or simply going to public places can help
Get involved in your community – Try a new (or old) hobby, join a club, enrol in study, or learn a new skill. Try looking online, at your local TAFE/Community College, library or community centre for things in your area that might be interesting to you
Volunteer – helping others is a great way to help yourself feel more connected
Consider getting a pet –pets are wonderful companions and can provide comfort and support during times of stress, ill-health or isolation
Get support – If loneliness and social isolation are causing you distress, you should discuss your concerns with a GP, counsellor or a trusted person
In my personal life I am going to try to be more regularly in touch with people who may be socially isolated, and in my work life I’m going to try to learn more about social isolation and how formal programs and interventions can help reduce the stress of loneliness.
How about you?
If loneliness is an issue causing you distress please take it seriously and consider taking some steps to reduce it. Here are some links to services if you’d like to talk to someone to help you come up with a plan.
So this week I turn 40. Naughty forty. The big four-oh. Forty is the new thirty, forty is the new black, 40 is the new… 40. And all that.
I thought it might be timely to take stock of some reflections on life, what I’ve learnt and what seems most important to me. (You know, just to summarise everything of importance, simmer it away on the stove and distill it into some sweet, spicy elixir of wisdom and truth, presented in a brief blog post – no pressure.) But then I thought about how me now and me at any other time period might not agree on what was important, or even what life was all about. Who have all these me’s been? What did it feel like at different moments?
There are dogs and birds and music and skin and beach and cake and wow, just like wow. Oh look at me my arm does stuff. Oh wow like I can move around and hey these are my legs and I can walk! I can walk! I get cuddles and get read to. Sounds, pictures, words. Smells, colours everywhere! Woah, more more more of all this stuff! There are words! Oh right like they mean something. I can read! I can write! I can fall over and skin my knees! I can draw! I can put EVERYTHING in my mouth!
So, there is this thing called the months of the year, and apparently I have to learn then and wow they just go on and on and this is really a very big task indeed. I have friends. We play pretend. I like baking. I like to industriously pick leaves off Grandma’s flowers and feed them to next door’s chickens, a busy little project that will last for ages. I like to help this piece of sandstone wall wear away, grinding at it with a stone. I like to play outside. We run around. The teacher makes us sit on the mat. We make books about the holidays. I like my hair in plaits, and clips.
Rollerskates and riding my bike with a sparkly seat. Neighbours and climbing trees. Making perfumes out of squished flowers. Having Barbie fights. Making elaborate plays with lots of great costumes from the dress up box. Telling rude jokes. Picking that scab on my knee. Learning facts and telling anyone who will listen. Nose in a book. Picking the neighbours flowers and selling them back to them. Jumping off the cubby house roof as a game rather than playing tea parties in the cubby house. Drawing fashion designs. Dancing around the backyard to Madonna songs and pretending we are in fact performing to vast multitudes.
Why is my hair so fluffy? Why do I have a pimple? Why is everyone, like, so stupid, and yet all of this is so funny, just ridiculously funny, and you know what, I think I’ll need to talk to my friends about it all day at lunch, and then in notes in class, and then as we walk to the bus, and then on the bus, and then at home on the phone, and then in our secret messages book to give them tomorrow at school. I just have SO MUCH to say. And so much music to listen to, which you totally wouldn’t understand the IRONIC value of, and the funniness of these bands, and their CUTE-ness, and what a super dooper crush I have on that singer, and that singer, and that actor, and that boy in class, and also that one – here I’ll write you a list. And oh my gosh don’t start, oh no don’t start laughing, not now, not here, oh no I will never stop giggling and now I just snorted and now you are laughing, and oh my god!! I have my first job, just one hour a week after school. I get actual money! Cash in an envelope once a week. And yet I also have VIEWS, about ISSUES, and BOOKS and you know I’m also very smart, here read my essay and listen to me talk awkwardly in front of the room in my slightly ill-fitted on my thin frame, scratchy uniform with hair that wont stay in place, blushing.
And now I am tall and mature and men have started looking at me – even gross old guys, yuck, what do they think I could possibly want with them. I glide. I glide through the halls of school on a bubble of my own thoughts, buoyed by an intense busyness of all my hobbies and committees. I like people and I love having friends from all different groups, and backgrounds. We have intense, serious, interesting conversations. School is a rush to the finish line, a year of deadlines and complex scheduling. Now I have a weekend job, and now a second one, and they let me do things, serve people, make coffee, clock on and they actually pay me. And I’m part of a team, and we have fun and chat and even when it’s boring its still kind of interesting. And now I’m at uni and I feel free, and romantic, and adventurous, and I am a list of my likes and dislikes, and I have mysteries, everything feels imbued with deep heavy meaningful mystery – my feelings are mysterious, the messages in music and books and films are significant beyond my knowing somehow. I write tiny little letters to tiny little pen pals, steeped with cloying rose scented mystery. I dive into love like an other-worldly mermaid into a deep cool pool of miraculous intensity. I am light, unencumbered, I drift, I have mini adventures beyond my own town. I am worldy.
Oh and the bad days start. The so sad and limp I can’t leave the house days. Conflicts and trying to make sense of patterns and the pinball like bouncing of behaviours and relationships. Complexity. Stickiness. Sadness. The shock of ‘what next’ after uni. The trying to be accepted by big important official jobs that link to my passion and mission as my confidence drains away. And grief of love lost, big heart wrenching grief that channels all the other griefs bottled up. A move. A move to another place to start a new chapter.
Big city! The thrill of the new. Kebab shops and people wearing work clothes without stockings! Trains and humidity and j-walking and staying out to the wee hours and commuting and an office job, and share houses, and relationships and most of all a big messy, dirty, trashy, sparkling spectacular city perched with all its tamed white toothed glamour, like the opera house crouched and smiling out for the cameras, above the slightly fouled water of the Harbour.
And now travel! Colours and smell and tingly exciting fear and so many people, and smells, and images and wow oh that salsa. Friends! Around the world! And kindness! And people being nice to me a wandering lost stranger.
And the thrum thoughout: who am I? Who am I? Who am I? Why am I how I am? How do I think? How do I see things? How am I feeling? Which bits of me are intrinsically me and which bits can change and have me still remain? Oh wow I have a mind watching itself, I have self-doubt, I have feelings of anxiety, I have patterns, I have preferences, I have emotions and I have a mind – how does this all work? And I start therapy! In this private sanctuary I can speak my mind, I can be heard, I can share my deepest flaws and fears and hurts… and I am OK.
And being in relationship to work. My weird codependant clingy addiction to work. My ‘sacrifice myself at the alter’ of work. My ‘I have a reason to get up because of work’ and my ‘I can’t possibly stop even if I want to because it’s so important’ relationship with work. Travel and anxiety, accomplishment and mind numbing stress, overwhelm and fatigue.
And then love, for a person: a solid, grounded, kind and ‘every day’ kind of love I realise I would like to have every single day. And home. And stability. And growing a garden together, a life together. And contentment.
And stepping up. Promotions, managing teams, supervising staff. Holy shit I’m an adult now. I’m not the young one in the team anymore. Holy shit I’m meant to know stuff – enough to teach others.
And edging away from the work I no longer see a future with (although at times I love it and am engulfed and excited by it). And towards the things I like more. Towards art. Towards a job that legitimately involves crayons and panders to my strange love of collage. Towards therapy. Towards coaching.
And more travel! Colours and smell and tingly exciting fear and airpots and so many people, and learning and feeling like a proper grown up woman doing the things that she wants. Spontaneity! Friends! Around the world! Learning! Mentors! And kindness!
Jumping knees deep into entrepreneurship (‘I can’t event spell it! how can I be one??’ I find myself wondering on incredulous days) and the highs and lows of confidence that I ride like waves in a choppy sea, and the various people positioned on life rafts and at lighthouses calling me in, guiding me in, helping to show the way.
And here. On the brink of time, right here about to begin 40 tomorrow.
Have you ever written your life as a story? It probably changes every time you write it (mine twists in the wind showing different sides at different moments), but it can be a great tool for gaining perspective and celebrating your journey. It can be interesting to consider the change and constancy in your experience of the world over time.
We often use story and poetry in art therapy to communicate deep feelings, celebrate our strengths or to see our lives with fresh eyes.
Maybe you could write yourself as a character? Describe yourself in a poem, or create an old-style fairytale depicting your key life adventures and lessons learnt through forests and wolves, wise women, body kings, golden keys and timber boxes. Try it! Let me know how you get on.
Many people recognise that art making has therapeutic benefit, emotionally, socially and even physically.
So, imagine you are in the office of your GP, and rather than prescribing medication you are prescribed 8 weeks of art lessons. Sound like a wonderful but way-out idea from some utopian future we might all dream of? Not so! Seniors in some suburbs of NSW can now access this right now via their local doctor or allied health professional. I interviewed Michelle Heldon, Acting Manager of the NSW ‘Arts on Prescription’ Program to find out more about the goals of the program and where the idea came from.
Hi Michelle, could you tell us a bit about how this program cam into being? What was the idea behind setting it up?
The program is called ‘Arts on Prescription’. It links participatory art activities run by professional artists to the traditional medical model of health services. Its aim is to help people to improve their health and wellbeing in multiple ways through creative expression. Basically what happens is that a Doctor or health professional can prescribe someone participation in this arts program, similar to how they would prescribe medication.
Participants will be involved in a range of arts experiences including painting, textiles, sculpture, music and movement. A similar program exists in the UK, which inspired this project, but because HammondCare who initiated it here is focused on positive ageing and aged care, this project focuses specifically on engaging older people rather than the general community.
No Arts on Prescription program has been done yet in Australia, in fact nothing like this has been done anywhere in the sense of this being designed specifically for people over the age of 65.
And who would be referred to this program?
People who have unmet health needs, an overall sense of decline in wellbeing, maybe they are socially isolated, experience depression or have decreased mobility. The referrer thinks that this person’s quality of life would benefit from participating in some art-form or another. For example say they have low self esteem but they light up when they talk about photography, this is potentially something this person could pursue to find that lost side of themselves. A person can also refer themselves if they feel they could benefit and approach the Arts on Prescription team who will link them with a referrer.
It has been promoted through aged care networks as well as through councils. Our primary focus is on people who are still living out in the community rather than in nursing homes, but it is open to people in residential care too if they are still relatively independent.
How does this differ from the various existing community activities, including arts, that might already be offered by say, a local council or community centre?
The thing that makes this program unique and appropriate for older people is that people have to be referred. In that way it’s validating that art can help on a medical level not just as a hobby. To have someone trusted like a GP or health professional let them know that ‘this is probably something you have never thought of before but if you go and do some painting it might help ease feelings of depression or anxiety’.
The form is just like a referral form to go see a specialist, but in this case it’s for going to see an artist. Instead of filling out a form for anti-depressants, they are filling out a form that is for 8 weeks of dancing or 8 weeks of painting.
Its encouraging people to ‘give it a go’. They program is fully funded so they don’t have to pay anything. This is about reaching new people and showing that there are all sorts of ways to improve our health where we personally play a part in our own healing.
Who else is involved in delivering the program?
The project will be undertaken in two locations: HammondCare’s Hammondville and North Turramurra sites. HammondCare hosts the program but it is also being run in partnership with the University of New South Wales (the School of Public Health and Community Medicine, and UNSW Art+Design) Also the project has the support of the South Western Sydney Medicare Local.
The artists are key to the program. All the artists have experience working with groups and working with people with specific needs. Some of them are also trained in therapy but we employed them as artists based on their own art practice – how they experience art for themselves and how they would like to share that. We also chose people who were interested in working with an older population.
For me having worked in Hammond Care for a number of years, I’m really aware that you have to have a strong commitment to empowering the people in your groups. We did a lot of training for the participating artists on how to involve someone, how to allow people to participate, to create space for them to engage and feel comfortable to express themselves.
We also have care workers from the health industry who can assist the artist in each session – they provide help for the participants for personal care or with mobility etc.
We only take 6 people in each group, its quite intimate but still creates a feeling of social interaction and connection. It’s a great way to bring people together and create a new network in people’s lives.
And what do you think the benefits might be?
I spoke with someone last week who was in his 80’s and he talked about his love of ceramics. In his 20’s he was taken to a gallery and because he knew the man organising the exhibition, he was able to touch some of the pieces. He told me about running his hands along the inside of a 200 year old Chinese pot, and explained emotionally that ‘that’s one of my happiest memories in my life’.
Wow, I got goosebumps as you told me that…
Exactly, and to have a way to reconnect with these memories through participating in art in your 80’s is such a wonderful thing! Activity that can enhance overall wellness in number of different ways. So that story gave us insight into the kind of program that he could get involved with, and he can reconnect with something that he really loves, but might never have had the opportunity to try as a younger person. This gentleman has recently started a Clay work program with Artist My Le Thi and is creating beautiful artworks and sharing stories with his group.
I’ve worked with older people for over 10 years and one thing I’ve noticed, is that this generation is difference in terms of accessing healthcare or asking for help. A lot of older people have the mentality of ‘you put your head down and keep on going’, a lot of them think ‘you don’t make a fuss’. So they are not always as willing to ask around for health information, or look into other types of therapies, and the GP themselves becomes a core source of guidance. As well, a lot of them have not been initiated into their new phase of life, they may have some unfulfilled hopes and dreams, particularly people who might be experiencing anxiety, depression and a loss of sense of self.
Research from the UK suggests that it reduces visits to the doctors when people go and do participatory art. Its not just a mental health aspect that these types of programs address but also the physical side – regaining mobility and flexibility is really key. We also plan to do physical research measures e.g. activity level monitoring, grip strength as well as wellness interview about mood, self esteem etc. We hope that the evaluation will show some solid results and programs like this can receive ongoing funding and the potential to roll it out in a range of organisations. As it’s so new we are learning and discovering along the way. We will get as much feedback as possible from the participants and artists to continually be improving and creating the program.
To sum up, what drew you to work on this program, why do you think it’s special?
Something like this provides insight for medical professionals to look at things in a different way – this project is a way to help validate all services that have a creative element in them. It’s bigger than this project for me, it’s about a wider shift in thinking, to see health differently, empowering people to take a part in their own healing. There is still a general idea that you go to the doctor and that they are going to fix you, instead of you going to the doctor expecting the doctor to support you to make changes. A project like this really illustrates this different shift in approach.
There are a lot of things out there that are happening and that are great but they are not always being evaluated and so can get swept under the rug or not validated.
It’s a way of sharing with the wider world ways of thinking about art and ways of thinking about health. Art as therapy still often gets put in another realm beyond standard medicine – this is a way to bring the realms to together and to identify that connection.
What is personally exciting for you about being involved in this program?
I feel like I kind of fell into this – everything in my life led me up to working on something like this. I feel like things have merged together. I’ve always loved art since I was a little girl, I studied art, my grandma had dementia that led me into aged care, my grandfather is a wonderful poet and I work at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I started doing aged care when I was in art school not knowing back that that I would link the two. I went on to study art therapy, which was so important for me but being involved in something like this is a merging of all these different things in my life.
I guess my reflection is that there are many many different paths and they don’t all look the same. I am grateful to HammondCare and the many people that have touched me with their stories. Getting involved in this work has really affirmed for me that I didn’t have to be defined by one particular aspect, me being an Artist, an Art Therapist, an educator, a carer. I could just be myself and authentically share with the people around me.
Sometimes I feel controlled by the labels, but I believe that there are always opportunities for new things, for expanding quality of life and to not be limited into being one particular way. And that’s what I think this program is all about and what I hope the people being referred and getting involved have the opportunity to experience as well.
Michelle Heldon is a visual artist based in Sydney who has been working in aged care for over 10 years. She has a Bachelor of Fine Art with Honours from the National Art School and has exhibited overseas and in Australia. Michelle currently works as an Artist Educator in the National Centre for Creative Learning and is the Coordinator of the new Artful: Art & Dementia program at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Michelle has also studied Transpersonal Art Therapy and co-ordinated and curated the HammondCare SES Living Memories Art Exhibition in 2014 and recently began the role of Project Manager and Artist for the Arts on Prescription program.
About the interviewer
Jade Herriman (Dip TAT, BSc and MSocSci) is a transpersonal art therapist and coach. She draws on over 15 years experience working in government and higher education as a sustainability professional, researcher and facilitator. Jade integrates the principles of client centered counseling and group facilitation with art therapy processes and her own experience of creative practice. Jade holds a variety of events within organisations or for the general public and offers one on one art therapy or coaching, either face to face or remotely. Read more here.