Loneliness is sometimes called the epidemic of our times.

One in four Australians are lonely, according to a recent study by the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University of Technology. 

Lonely Australians are known to have worse physical and mental health, and are more likely to be depressed, the study found.

Loneliness is particularly common among older people, due to the fact they they often live alone and are more likely to have physical and cognitive impairments that make it more difficult for them to get out and about and connect with their social networks.

The loneliness scourge is just a problem in Australia. It is a serious, and growing, problem around the world. 

Scientists and academics are looking closely at the topic, and developers are building innovative new technologies. 

But what if the answer is right under our noses?

Checking out might take a little longer…

That’s the approach taken by a Dutch supermarket, which has introduced a program to create more opportunities for a good old chat while out shopping at the local supermarket.

‘Jumbo Supermarket’ has launched two initiatives: ‘All Together Coffee Corner’ and ‘Chat Checkout’.

All Together Coffee Corner is a meeting point where older people can meet locals and volunteers in a safe and welcoming space. Volunteers can help the older people, not just by providing company, but also by helping with the shopping, and even further afield, such as lending a hand at home or in the gardens of the people they meet.

At the Chat Checkout, customers can queue up and check out with a cashier who will take their time to talk to the person. Checking out might take a bit longer than usual, but perhaps that’s the point.

In supermarkets, technology is replacing humans at the checkout to improve efficiency, and in a similar way, automation in aged care is reducing the opportunities for human contact.

It’s easier to give residents a pet robot than to spend time with them

Dr Rodney Jilek, principal advisor with Aged Care Consulting and Advisory Services, told HelloCare, “In aged care, time is the one thing we don’t have because time costs money. It’s easier to give people a robot cat than it is to spend time with them.”

“Maybe it would be better to take the person outside, to get some vitamin D, just go out into the garden and smell the fresh air,” he said.

Shopping a great way to make community connections

Many years ago, I worked in a small local cake shop. Every day, a woman in her eighties came in, immaculately dressed, and she would buy a single croissant. 

She came for the pastry, there’s no doubt about that – the croissants were good – but I suspect she also came for the company. She’d chat while she chose her croissant, chat while handing us her money, and then chat a bit more while she remained in the shop and we served other customers.

It was clear to us she was lonely.

I never asked, but I guess the woman lived alone, and her daily walk out into her local community, and her simple transaction at the cake shop may well have been the only human contact and conversation she had all day.

The chat checkout and coffee corner are great initiatives that are easy to create and cost little to implement, especially if volunteers are happy to help. 

Have you seen something like a Chat Checkout here in Australia? Would you like to see something like this here?

Image: Jumbo.

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