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New study reveals group excursions boost happiness in older people

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Whether it’s to ride a horse, take a hike or hop on a Harley, new Macquarie University research reveals the positive impacts for older people of getting out as part of a group.

Older people felt happier, more confident and formed new friendships when they went on group excursions such as horse riding, river cruises or to musicals, according to a new study of older adults living independently.

To explore the impact on their wellbeing, Macquarie University researchers evaluated an innovative program of 57 adults over the age of 65 in Perth on group excursions that also included skating, riding a Harley Davidson, and having dinner at a restaurant among other activities.

“The benefits were largely related to social wellbeing,” Dr Joyce Siette, who led the study at Macquarie’s Australian Institute of Health Innovation, says.

Dr Joyce Siette is a post-doctoral researcher at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation at Macquarie University.

“They loved having the opportunity to socialise and make new friendships. It was amazing — some of the participants even started having sleepovers with their friends as relationships continued after the program.”

Widespread loneliness

About a quarter of Australia’s older adults are lonely and have significantly worse mental and physical health than people who are connected, Australian Psychological Society figures show. Most people need social engagement and interaction to have a sense of identity, belong to a community and live fulfilled lives.

As the number of older adults grows as a percentage of the total population, understanding how to address this is important to carers and health authorities.

To gauge the benefits of excursions, Siette’s team used a standard tool adopted widely internationally — the Adult Social Care Outcomes Toolkit — to design their survey and interviews. Before they started, most participants (whose average age was 81) reported their quality of life as “moderate”, but after the excursions everyone said they felt more confident and happier.

”I feel like my old self again,” Larry*, a participant who said he’d withdrawn “into a shell” for about 10 years and didn’t go out, says. “Since the program started I’m more connected and I’m communicating regularly.”

Care and community involvement

The Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in 2020 found that most Australians want to grow old and receive care in their own homes. At the same time most older adults also want to participate in their communities for as long as possible, however some lack the economic and social means to do so.

Participants in the study were already living independently and receiving community-based services from either the government-subsidised Commonwealth Home Support Program or the Home Care Package Program to manage or alleviate health risks by giving them some help with shopping, cleaning or gardening.

In addition to the regular assistance services they received from the Government, for the purpose of this research, participants were offered the opportunity to go on an average of one activity a fortnight, lasting from two hours to half a day. This was offered at no additional cost. Before and after they’d taken part in the excursions for six months, Siette and her team surveyed them.

Even the anticipation of the excursion was positive for many participants. “If you’re on your own you think, I won’t do that or I’ll do that tomorrow,” Dorothy*, another participant, says. “Now I get quite excited. I think tomorrow we’re going out and it gives me a lift.”

Group-based activities that focus on building relationships can create a sense of belonging, Macquarie University’s Dr Joyce Siette says.

Siette’s team also interviewed carers, who reported significant improvements of their loved ones after the excursions. “Dad went ice-skating yesterday. Came home and he was just grinning from ear to ear – and this is someone who was highly depressive,” one carer says. “So the behavioural changes are enormous.” Carers also appreciated the program because it gave them some respite.

Participants and carers agreed that the program succeeded because the activities happened in a group and they had a choice of excursions.

Also, the activities were convenient and accessible because participants were picked up and dropped home. Staff tended to physical needs such as accompanying them to the toilet.

As a result of her research, Siette suggests future Government initiatives for older people still living at home should focus on prioritising initiatives that provide them opportunities for social connection with the wider community.

”Excursion, group-based activities that focus on building and bridging relationships can create a sense of belonging and inclusion, address social loneliness and improve older adults’ physical, mental and social outcomes,” she says.

*Not their real names

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