The friendship tonic

Italian-born nonna Connie Natoli loves chatting to her friends and eating pizza and pasta with coffee – there must be coffee. The laughter mounts as fast as the cups are drained, as the 86-year-old gets down to the serious business of having fun.

Connie is a regular at Uniting AgeWell’s Linlithgow Centre in Ivanhoe. She’s been with the centre first as a founding member, then as a volunteer and now as a client. She loves attending the multi-cultural day on Thursdays, and after the activities and lunch, she and a group of women head out for more coffee. And of course, more laughter and talking.

“We are so supportive of each other,” Connie says. “If you’re feeling a bit down, someone will always cheer you up. You don’t stay feeling sorry for yourself for long!”

Like any stage of life, living your best life as you get older is so much more than getting the housework done. It’s about emotional wellbeing, having purpose and meaning and socialising with others.

Lockdowns during COVID helped reveal the ugly face of loneliness. While its aftermath is still being felt, older people in the community are loving being part of social connection programs again.

Just ask Penel Anderson, who lights up as she recalls the day a client put on a piano performance for others to enjoy. “She had arrived at our social connections program so thin and unwell that she had to take breaks between activities and lie down on a fold-out bed. Her aim was to put on weight and feel stronger and healthier, and she absolutely loved the nutritious meals that were served.

“She came every day, and started chatting to people and began thriving!” explains Penel. “It was very satisfying to see her health and wellbeing improve, including her increased confidence to put on a piano performance for other clients. There’s no doubt that social connections is the glue that holds us together!”

Penel who oversees operations at five AgeWell Centres across metro Melbourne, says, “I’ve seen some clients who are anxious or depressed and lonely when they first come to the groups. Some aren’t eating well, others just want to have a reason to get out of bed in the mornings, to have some people to talk with and to share their news with.”

She says by establishing partnerships with local schools, music and community groups, the Centre becomes a community hub that helps connect clients to others. “It keeps them in the loop, and allows them to contribute, to have purpose and joy in their life.”

Sometimes all it takes is a phone call. Uniting AgeWell Social Connections volunteer Pat Kennedy says she used to phone a lady who lived on her own and used to spend her evenings cuddled up in bed with her dog watching Australia take on England during The Ashes.

“I knew the minute I phoned that she just couldn’t wait to tell me all about the game. We became great friends.”

Pat also does one-on-one visits and says it’s the little things that make all the difference. “We go and have a coffee at a café, or browse through the shops. We’ll share family photos, play a game of cards and have a laugh. Having fun is so important.”

Uniting AgeWell offers many social inclusion programs:

  • One-on-one visiting: spending time with people at home – so playing board games or listening to music or chatting. Or out in the community and supporting them to get back to the things they enjoy socially – visiting op-shops or cafes, galleries or places of interest or going out to lunch.
  • Chat-A-Ring: chatting one-on-one with people on weekly or fortnightly calls.
  • Telelink: group chats with up to 6 – 8 people who dial in. Topics can include armchair travel, quizzes or just chatting! This is particularly beneficial for people with social anxiety or those who are vision impaired.
  • Outings – taking people out for meals or to the movies, or other outings established around people’s needs and preferences.
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