Caring Rhonda connects with the lonely

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Rhonda Bowen has been deluged with calls from senior citizens. Picture: ANDY ZAKELIA woman’s decision to place herself up for “adoption” last week touched a nerve that reverberated all the way to London.Rhonda Bowen’s unusual method of connecting with senior citizens in need of friendship placed a spotlight on loneliness and social disconnection.Since Ms Bowen was featured in the Mercury on Wednesday, she has received calls from seniors living on their own, a widower in Tasmania seeking friendship, people across the street and friends from her old Bellambi district with whom she had lost touch.The courageous act of reaching out, despite concerns her heartfelt plea would be ridiculed, left her dancing around her Wollongong living room.”I feel like however long I live now, I am truly blessed,” she said.Since losing her mum Vi five years ago, Ms Bowen said she had become increasingly lost and lonely, a situation not helped by arthritis, which forced her to leave her job as a technical aide at Wollongong Hospital.Despite several long-term relationships, she never married, has no car and the internet is a foreign language.The 59-year-old has regular contact with her best friend Veronica, an aunt, a sister and the sister’s three children.She has friends through the Wesley Church on the Mall and visits seniors in nursing homes.Then there’s Frank, her friend of three years with whom she chats daily on the phone and socialises on the weekend.But there has been a bond unfulfilled since the loss of her mother. The two women lived apart, with her mum down the road at Warrawong (“I liked living by myself and so did she”), but the distance mattered little.”I miss my mum. The cuddles, the love. The food. I used to take her out and she’d play the pokies and forget about her pain – she had heart problems. Lots of health problems.”Since placing herself up for “adoption”, Ms Bowen feels the gap is slowly closing.”I had to stop taking calls after 12 people. I’ve contacted three so far and it’s been great.”A lady at Corrimal said she’d like me to go out there so I’ll catch a train out.”Next week I’ll be visiting a 90-year-old lady who lives around the corner …”When I was ringing these people, they said to me, ‘You’ve made me so happy.’ As soon as they say that, I get that back and it’s fantastic,” Ms Bowen said.Her story has featured on national TV show A Current Affair and she had a call from the BBC in London, seeking an interview.But while her story created immense interest, those on their own are not alone.According to figures from the NSW Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care, 48,600 clients in the state got domestic assistance, 10,800 received personal care and 34,200 received respite care in 2007-08.This included more than 3300 people in the Illawarra who were assisted through the Home and Community Care program. Thousands more are supported by church and community groups.Yet the propensity for loneliness increases with people’s age and disabilities.Professor Brian Draper, who specialises in “old age” psychiatry at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital, said seniors often suddenly found themselves out of touch.Older people faced several general types of loneliness, with the first relating to isolation as a result of declining physical ability.”They can’t get out to do the things they want to do. They can’t catch the bus because they can’t walk to the bus stop any more or maybe they had to give up driving the car for whatever health reasons,” he said.Prof Draper said this might be compounded by a reduction in their social and familial network through death and people moving away.”When you’re isolated and not able to participate in social activities it can become very lonely,” he said.People who have enjoyed close personal relationships with a select few in their lives would also find it difficult to circulate and form friendships with new people.”They become like the person you hear of who can be in a group of 1000 people but still feel lonely.”Prof Draper said one of the greatest contributors to social isolation was a lack of public transport, particularly for the disabled.”In a survey of older people and what they needed, public transport was top of the list. It was the difficulty in connecting,” he said.These problems were compounded for people who came from non-English speaking backgrounds.Day care facilities have made a world of difference to thousands of seniors, but many are unaware that such social outlets exist.Diane Zisis, case manager for Community Options Illawarra, which handles an average of 200 senior clients each month, said it was not until their health deteriorated and they ended up in hospital that the elderly became exposed to the range of options available.Prof Draper said accessibility and promotion were key issues.”We might think we have a variety of things available. but it’s hard finding them. “The average older person isn’t connected to the internet,” he noted.In addition, such group outlets are not always the answer, particularly for those who prefer one-on-one relationships.”A lot of people don’t want to be in a group. Helping people has to be tailored to their particular needs,” he said.Prof Draper said thousands of people had successfully negotiated their senior years by remaining engaged in the community.”Most of our volunteers are seniors. There are many who, given the opportunity to do things, will grab it and that can be a very effective way to help people who tend to get lonely,” he said.Through ingenuity, Ms Bowen has successfully tailor-made her own social network – with a little help from above.”I think Mum’s had a bit of heavenly intervention in this. She knew I wasn’t getting what I needed, the friendship and the love, and I just reckon she’s hooked up,” she said.
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