Christmas is a treasured time to relax with friends and loved ones, celebrating the passage of another busy year. But sadly, not all Australians enjoy the festive season.
Loneliness affects people from all walks of life – particularly as we age – and the feeling of isolation can often be heightened when others nearby are so obviously having fun and enjoying each other’s company.
As the Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care, loneliness is something I am very conscious of, with recent university and Red Cross research again highlighting that up to one-third of us feel lonely around Christmas time.
In this digital age, many people have done away with Christmas cards, which I think in itself is a little sad.
As a local MP and Federal Minister, I still make an effort to send out traditional cards, each personally signed.
I am heartened that plenty of people take the time to respond, but I recently received a reply highlighting the isolation that some suffer.
An 80-year-old woman let me know that my Christmas card was the first she had received in 46 years! Think about that: she had not received a Christmas card since the 1970s. It is heartbreaking and almost impossible to believe.
It goes to show we may live in communities, but at the same time, we may be alone.
For those living on their own, Christmas can be particularly challenging. Tragically, it is a time when some may consider taking their own lives – and senior Australians are particularly vulnerable.
In 2017, across all age groups the age-specific suicide rate was highest among males aged 85 years and older, recording 32.8 suicides per 100,000 deaths. For women, the rate was 5.2 suicides per 100,000 deaths.
British research has found that people suffering social isolation are 26 per cent more likely to die than those who are involved with friends, family and their communities.
The festive season also coincides with summer and the sometimes searing temperatures this can bring.
Unsurprisingly, the number of older people who either pass away or are admitted to hospital because of issues arising out of extreme heat rises over the summer months.
It’s just another reason to reach out to senior Australians, in particular – loved ones, friends and neighbours – this Christmas and New Year.
Knock on their door or drop by to make sure they have enough cool drinks available. And make sure they have somewhere comfortable to sit out of the sun.
Beyond those in your immediate vicinity, take the time to make contact - through telephone calls or through video apps like Skype or FaceTime - to see how people are feeling.
Most of us have friends or family living in regional parts of the country who may not have many visitors. And some of these people may be living in areas suffering from the widespread drought or recent bushfires.
Take a moment to think what it is like to be in their shoes, on properties that haven’t seen rain in months or years, or have been ravaged by fire. They could do with some support over Christmas and New Year.
A telephone call won’t make it rain and it won’t repair a burned-out house but you can show you care and let a friend or relative know they are not alone.
Our Government is absolutely committed to the social and mental wellbeing of all Australians, especially seniors, with new initiatives funded to combat social isolation and promote inclusion.
In the past year, the Government-backed Community Visitors Scheme has coordinated more than 247,000 visits by volunteers to people living in residential aged care services or in their own homes.
This is a comprehensive scheme but it in no way substitutes for the company of family, loved ones, neighbours or friends.
Christmas is a time for giving but this needn’t be a present to be unwrapped on Christmas Day. It can be a phone call to someone you haven’t rung for a while, or a visit next door or across the road.
The cost may be nothing – but the worth of your contact will be the priceless gift of caring.