'Everyone needs a friend': Calls to expand Community Visitor Scheme to help older Australians stay connected

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A review of the government-funded Community Visitor Scheme shows a lack of awareness still exists about the scheme, which was designed to provide social support to older Australians.

At a weekly dance class at a community hall in Western Sydney, a group of older residents are line dancing.

The class is part of a suite of wellness programs run by Cumberland Council - similar to many others around Australia.

The programs are designed for people over 55 to get out and socialise and exercise with others in their local community. But mobility can be a barrier to joining such groups, especially for those over 80 or those with health issues.

Flora Morrison gets regular visits from a volunteer through Catholic Care, one of the providers of the Community Visitor Scheme for vulnerable older people.

"It's good, it makes me feel better and I can say thank god," she said.

It's a reversal of sorts - Ms Morrison was once a volunteer visitor herself. Originally from Romania, the 84-year-old said she was saddened by the loneliness she saw in the community.

"Nobody understands just how much it means to them, that time when they come, they wait for them, for that day and that hour for someone to come and visit them," she said.

Flora Morrison and Volunteer Darren Laing - SBS
Flora Morrison with volunteer Darren Laing
SBS

The need for such services is expected to increase, with the number of people living alone doubling in the past 50 years.

Dr Liz Allen, a demographer at the Australian National University in Canberra, has also looked at how Australians live. 

She told SBS World News there is some variation in who lives alone and why.

"There has been an increase in people living alone and this is certainly something - an increase we see mostly among older people, particularly in people over 80, and we see the reverse happening among young people below the age of 40," she said.

Dr Allen on global differences for people living alone

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Darren Laing is a volunteer community visitor. He visits a man bereaved by the loss of his wife. With a daughter living interstate, Darren's client has limited family support and few friends.

He said being a volunteer with the program is something he always wanted to do.

"He lost his wife in September last year, so he's all alone and he's very sad and he's still grieving for his wife," Mr Laing said.

"Everyone needs a friend. If you can have a friend in your life that you can just visit, someone to look forward to coming to see you and brighten up their day, I think that's a wonderful thing."

Darren Laing on his experience as a volunteer

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Mr Laing said said he fits visits around his work schedule, which involves shift work.

"All it takes from me is a commitment from me, a bit of time for me," he said.

The Community Visitor Scheme has been running in nursing homes since 1992, and in 2013 the scheme was expanded to include visits to clients living at home.

More than 11,000 people living in aged care or in the community on home care packages currently receive support from the scheme - and Australian Bureau Of Statistics data shows many of them are women, with twice as many females aged over 80 in Australia.

Dr Allen said while living alone isn't a problem for everyone, there are those who struggle.

"So we're seeing a lot of research being performed investigating the idea of loneliness and social connectedness among older people," she said.

"The idea is that if you live by yourself you're isolated, and that's certainly not the case for everyone, but the risk factors are there for it and I guess that's why people are concerned."

Community Dance group over 55s Granville - SBS
Participants in an over-55s community dance group at Granville, in Sydney's west.
SBS News

A review of the Community Visitor Scheme recommends it be expanded to include people eligible for but not currently on home care packages.

It also recommends the involvement of companion animals and the use of technology to help keep people out of residential aged care for longer.

As for Ms Morrison, she's both grateful to have been able to help others and also to now receive some help for herself.

"She's wonderful and I know her from before, because I worked as a volunteer and I knew her," she said of her volunteer visitor.

"I'm lucky to have her, she's a wonderful girl I am happy with that."

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