Without adequate social connections, older people have an increased risk of poorer mental health and wellbeing, negatively impacting on their physical health and use of health services.
Social isolation and loneliness of older people in parts of our region is significant, and has been further exacerbated by the current Covid-19 climate.
In response to these ongoing issues, we have been working in partnership with the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses to pilot a project designed with sustainable ways to improve social connectedness of older people. This project is aimed at reducing isolation and loneliness through the implementation of a compassionate community approach in the Hawkesbury region.
This pilot is being evaluated by the Centre for Health Service Development (CHSD) and Australian Health Services Research Institute at the University of Wollongong. It is running over a two and a half year period (extended due to Covid-19 to June 2021).
In 2019, the Social Connectedness of Older People in the Hawkesbury project held three Community Workshops in the Hawkesbury region in targeted areas. Over 100 professionals, volunteers and community members participated, working on improving connections for socially isolated older people in the Hawkesbury.
Following the workshops, a Steering Committee was established, and three working groups were formed to progress focusing on some of the key themes identified by the community. The working groups priorities include: 'Connecting with the Socially Isolated - Identifying the Unidentified', 'Service Provider Networking and Community Awareness' and 'Improving Transport and Volunteering in the Hawkesbury'.
We also commenced a Health Connector program where people at risk of, or who are already socially isolated ,can now also access support from a Health Connector based in one of seven GP practices in the Hawkesbury. This program has been temporarily suspended due to Covid-19 but will be restarted when appropriate.
Health Connectors work one-to-one with patients and carers on practical and achievable, person centred social network mapping, planning and goal setting. They act as a bridge between formal health care providers (GPS, aged, community and other services) and informal care networks (families, neighbours, colleagues, social and support groups etc.). They help people develop their social support networks, especially those who are isolated, vulnerable and at risk of "falling through the cracks". This is a free service.
In the interim, while the Health Connector program is on hold, information on local lifestyle and wellbeing services and their current operational capacity due to Covid-19 is available on My Health Connector.
This directory was initially based on Wentworth Healthcare's mapping of Hawkesbury services but is now being populated with services from right across the primary health network, i.e. Blue Mountains, Hawkesbury, Lithgow and Penrith regions. Organisations are now uploading and updating their own information.
Who is involved?
The Social Connectedness project also involves upskilling the community to be confident to have conversations around social isolation and to be able to sign-post people to appropriate support.
Community Connectors are members of the community that are familiar with existing supports in the community and can sign-post to others using the knowledge contained in the My Health Connector directory for the Hawkesbury. They can be anyone interested from the community, including neighbours, volunteers, taxi drivers, baristas, retail workers - anyone who has contact with older people.
Training sessions for Community Connectors are now being rolled out online. For details click here.
We will also be training Lead Connectors to be able to deliver the training program ongoing and facilitate regular Community Connector catch-ups. This training is particularly important now due to social distancing requirements of the Covid-19 response.
We are continuing to work to develop and support identified, sustainable strategies to strengthen community for socially isolated people, particularly in partnership with existing groups, services and organisations.
This involves working groups to focus on the issues and ideas raised in the workshops and subsequent report. These groups continue to meet online during the Covid-19 period.
This year, the project will see an establishment of a network of Community Connector Points in services and organisations across the Hawkesbury with time and training to help people with social connection and access to the website.
New community development initiatives, growing out of the ongoing working groups, will be commissioned to support transport, volunteering and social connection. Community partnership activities will expand for Seniors Week, Neighbour Day, and other Dementia and Age Friendly projects.
If you would like to find out more about the Improving Social Connectedness of Older People in the Hawkesbury Project or how you can become involved we would be happy to hear from you.
Contact Liz Murphy, Project Officer, on 4708 8100 or contact us online.