Men, loneliness, and the path to connection

Men, loneliness, and the path to connection

According to the 2023 Social Connection Report in Australia, both men and women indicate similar levels of loneliness, with approximately 3 in 10 individuals of either gender reporting feelings of isolation. However, it’s a widely acknowledged fact that men are often less inclined to seek support. This trend is also evident in our In Great Company volunteer program, where, since 2019, out of 460 supported clients only 30% have been male.

Research on adult friendships, especially for men, highlights the challenges of making and maintaining deep, meaningful connections. While there isn’t a single study that encapsulates this idea, several studies and findings contribute to this understanding.

“Close friendships protect our mental and physical health, and men who prioritize those relationships are fighting off one of the most harmful things to human health — loneliness. What (men) are at risk of losing is this sense of not being alone in the world or not being alone in their experience. Disclosure of emotional distress improved (men’s) emotional well-being, increased feelings of being understood and resulted in less reported loneliness.” says Dr. Frank Sileo, a psychologist based in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

Challenging stereotypes and societal pressures

When Dr. Sileo started his research back in 1995, stereotypes that male bonding would be, or become, sexual in nature were inaccurate, but revealed some of what may be holding some men back from developing meaningful friendships. Even today, decades later, though assumptions may have evolved, societal pressures persist, making it challenging for men to openly express the vulnerability and intimacy needed for close friendships.

As we often label relationships as “feminine,” this can create the perception that admitting the need for friendships is a sign of weakness or a liability for men. The inclination to suppress vulnerability, toughen up, and avoid showing emotions ultimately lead to feelings of loneliness. Friendships are a fundamental aspect of the human experience. Yet many men from older generations were raised in cultures that conflicted with this inherent need.

The tide is turning

A significant turning point catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic, was its role in illuminating the pervasive issue of loneliness. The heightened awareness surrounding the vulnerability of individuals in our society, especially the older generation, has played a pivotal role in recognising and extending support to more male clients. In this past year alone, our program has witnessed a remarkable surge, with the number of male clients increasing by 300%.

We have also witnessed a growth in the number of male volunteers and an increasing number of uplifting stories of connection involving men through our program. Among these, the story of volunteer Dale Berrie and his client Jon, featured in an article by ABC Central Victoria, has touched the hearts of many people across Australia. Both men seeking connection found it in a simple friendship formed during the pandemic, that has led to improving each other’s lives.

The path to connection

For some, a deep, meaningful connection with one person is essential for fostering feelings of connection, while for others, it could be as simple as contact with a stranger. Even engaging in open conversations, whether publicly or privately, can become a means of combating loneliness.

The key is not looking at circumstances and assuming what feelings should be associated with it, but actually asking yourself if you are lonely. Then identifying what kind of connection would be appropriate, and reflecting on the quality of your existing relationships, are important initial steps. The subsequent actions will largely depend on each individual’s unique circumstances.

It is important to note that community is important. Restricting one’s struggles, questions, and concerns to a single person or relationship may not always offer the most effective support. For those experiencing loneliness due to a lack of friends or family and seeking to connect with new people in their community, programs like In Great Company can play a pivotal role in facilitating this through shared activities with friendly visitor volunteers.

Find out more about In Great Company volunteer program

From radio waves to real connections

From radio waves to real connections

Sometimes, the most beautiful stories begin with a simple radio broadcast. In Tony’s case, his life took a heart-warming turn when he heard about In Great Company’s volunteer program on his local ABC Radio breakfast show. His connection with Jasmine, a volunteer who visits him every fortnight, has blossomed into a story of new adventures and companionship.

How it all began

It all started with a radio broadcast. Tony, facing isolation and the frustrations of impaired vision, heard Sue O’Toole talking about In Great Company’s volunteer program on his local breakfast radio show. Intrigued and in search of companionship, he reached out, and spoke to Sue who offered to register him over the phone without missing a beat.

Enter Jasmine, a volunteer looking for connection to the community

A dedicated volunteer with a passion for making a difference, Jasmine describes her beginning with the program: “I was reflecting on my values and realised I was missing a bit of a sense of community, and I felt volunteering would be a good place to reconnect. I did some googling and stumbled upon In Great Company, and realised it was exactly the kind of volunteering I’d like to get involved in. I just loved its ethos. I have always really enjoyed spending time with and learning from people older than me and have always had a real soft spot for the elderly in our community. I have seen my own grandparents battle loneliness and I knew I could make a difference with someone in my local community.”

Jasmine and Tony’s initial meeting was tinged with uncertainty, primarily due to their age difference. Both felt a bit apprehensive, unsure of what to expect and whether they would find common ground. But at the same time, equally excited about the potential of forming a new friendship.

What do visits look like?

Jasmine visits every fortnight on a Monday, and this normally includes an outing into the community. Tony really enjoys getting out, since having impaired vision means that there are so many things he cannot do on his own, and he has been frustrated at the impact it has had to his independence.

The duo has embarked on a journey of exploration, discovering new cafes, art festivals, and scenic spots.

Tony recounts: “I truly enjoyed going to the SWELL Sculpture Festival and Currumbin. Jasmin had a Pedometer and we walked over 2,500 steps! Our visit to Currumbin RSL Club for coffee last week, was beautiful: I like it there on the river. We have also been to Freeman’s Organic farm, it’s been in the family for about 100 years, has magnificent views across the Currumbin Valley. You go through a rainforest to get there. I can’t see the view like a fully sighted person, but it was nice to go up there. We have also visited the Echo Village and Dust Temple which was beautiful.”

Jasmine says: “Contrary to my initial concerns, much to our delight, our age difference has not been an issue. Tony and I have tried to explore a number of new cafes in the area, including going for a drive to Currumbin valley and Tallebudgera valley. One of the most memorable activities was a suggestion by Tony to check out the SWELL Sculpture Festival at Currumbin on the beach. It was lovely to walk along the beach and I read out the destructions to Tony and we discussed our different perspectives on the art.”

Any challenges?

Jasmine works from home a couple of days a week, so she is able to visit for only about an hour and half each time. She admits: “I find it challenging needing to balance a full-time job, with wanting to spend more time volunteering and feeling bad having to say goodbye on my visits. Tony also struggles with poor eyesight and physical mobility so this has often challenged me thinking about new activities and ways we can interact.”

Tony appreciates that Jasmine doesn’t have much time he understands that she also commutes to Brisbane a couple of days a week as well. “We were meeting once a week, but we have brought it back to once a fortnight. She is a different person altogether from my other volunteer Margaret who visits on alternate weeks.”

In Great Company has paired Tony with another volunteer to provide additional support and variety.

How this experience changes you

For Tony, Jasmine’s companionship has been a lifeline. Their outings, whether to sculpture festivals, RSL clubs, organic farms, or the local coffee shop, provided a welcome escape from isolation. In Jasmine, Tony found someone who understands the frustrations of visual impairment and mobility challenges. Their connection has brightened his days, providing a break from the monotony of solitude.

“I don’t know what I would do without it really. I find Jasmine is a very caring person. We get on quite well, she is a totally different generation, but I do enjoy her company a great deal. We have developed trust and a mutual understanding of each other. We have become more comfortable in each other’s company, and we gradually find that we do have more in common. My other volunteer, Margaret is older, so we have different conversations sharing our similar lived experiences, cultural or social references, and views.”

For Jasmine: I have learnt that sometimes just taking the time out to hear someone’s story, share in their problems, or just have a casual conversation can make a difference. It has enriched my life by showing me how precious every moment of life is, as well as how powerful human connection and a sense of community can be.”

In conclusion

Jasmine has further strengthened her perspective on the importance of social connection and how crucial it is to keep these channels open with people of all ages in life. Building and maintaining friendships and companionships and staying involved with community is so vital for our physical and mental health.

Her advice to new volunteers: “Come in with an open mind and open heart. Take each session as it comes and manage your expectations. You will be guaranteed to learn and teach at the same time. You will definitely make a difference!”

In Great Company continues to create these stories, reminding us all that no matter where you start, the path to connection is within reach.

As Tony puts it: “I am so glad I heard about this program. I certainly look forward to my visitors so I would definitely recommend it to others. I haven’t tried to sell it to anyone yet, maybe I’m selfish and don’t want to share (he laughs). I will make a particular point of it now.”

Ready to get started with becoming or finding a volunteer?

Become a volunteer   Find a volunteer

Meet the staff: Tammy Barton

Meet the staff: Tammy Barton

What is your name?

Tammy Barton

What is your current role?

A Volunteer Coordinator, responsible for volunteer onboarding, engagement, reporting and compliance.

How long have you been in this role?

I recently joined the team; it’s been about 4 months now.

Tell us about your background?

I was born and grew up in Sydney where I lived with my dad, mum, and older brother. I have gained experience in diverse industries including telecommunications, superannuation, and residential building. I have been happily married to my husband Adam for 23 years and we have two children: our 16-year-old daughter, Summer, and our 14-year-old son, George.

Sixteen years ago, we made the choice to move to the Tweed Shire, drawn by the opportunity to be nearer to our family and embrace a more relaxed way of life. Our current location is truly special, with the beautiful Tweed River, numerous stunning beaches, and consistently great weather—we love it here.

What are your hobbies and interests?

My family holds a special place in my heart, and as such, prioritising quality time with them remains my top commitment. I find immense joy in camping and 4WD adventures, discovering new and unexplored locations.

Staying fit and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important to me, which is why I regularly engage in workouts at my local gym and relish runs or walks along the beach. I’ve also recently become part of a ladies’ netball team, which has added a fun and active dimension to my life.

Whenever I get a chance, I indulge in some well-deserved downtime by picking up a captivating book and heading to the beach, where I can unwind and escape into the pages of a good story.

What attracted you to Feros Care/In Great Company?

I have worked for Feros Care for approximately 7 years, across many different roles. I find the industry most rewarding, being able to help seniors remain independent in their own homes, supporting them with the care and services that they need to live their best lives.

When an opportunity arose to be part of the In Great Company team, I jumped at the chance. The In Great Company team do an amazing job in reducing loneliness and social isolation for so many elderly people. I truly believe in this program; it is life changing for someone that does not have regular contact with friends or family.

What is the most satisfying part of your role?

I take great satisfaction in knowing that each day the work that I do contributes to making a difference in improving the quality of life for our lonely seniors.

It is so rewarding to know that our team are making a genuine difference in tackling loneliness, through the power of social connection.

How valuable do you believe the In Great Company volunteer service is?

The In Great Company volunteer service is life changing, it supports seniors in remaining independent and connected to the community. The friendships that blossom through the program are inspiring. I am really happy to be part of an initiative like this.

Find out more about In Great Company

A tale of friendship and companionship

A tale of friendship and companionship

The story of Fred and Keith, an unlikely friendship nurtured through the In Great Company program. Keith, a retiree seeking purpose, discovered it in volunteering. Now, he meets weekly with Fred for their down-to-earth, blokey conversations that have unexpectedly enriched both of their lives.

In the beginning

Keith first learned about In Great Company through his local Tursa Employment Agency while exploring volunteer opportunities during a job search. Having been on a career pension for the past 15 years and dealing with the loss of his wife about two years ago, life at 65 was not what he had imagined. He was feeling lost, especially given his lack of formal qualifications and the limited work prospects for individuals his age in Port Macquarie.

Upon relocating to Port Macquarie, Fred found himself in need of care and companionship, but had no one to turn to. So, when his family introduced him to Feros Care, his Wellbeing Manager, Nicole, assured him that she could arrange the assistance he needed, along with the added benefit of the Volunteer program.

Their first meeting

Keith’s first visit with Fred took place at Fred’s home, with Nicole, Fred’s brother, and his brother’s wife. To each other’s relief, they hit it off right from the start.

For Keith: “Fred was somewhat reserved in the beginning, but he’s become quite chatty over time. We engage in conversations about footy, horses, and sports in general. I had hoped our meetings would be a positive experience, and I’m happy to say that they’ve proven to be enjoyable for both of us.”

For Fred: “I got on with him as a friend immediately from the first visit, and Nicole along with my family were there to make sure everything went ok.”

What do your visits look like?

In Keith’s efforts to make their time together as engaging as possible, he often asks Fred if he’d like to go for a drive or visit his place. He tries to offer a variety so that their Tuesdays don’t become monotonous.

Back at Keith’s place, they watch footy games, particularly those featuring the Roosters, and share thoughts about the matches.

“We talk about what should have happened in the game and just real bloke footy talk.”

They have also explored the countryside outside Wauchope and Beechwood, places Fred has never been to before, and he’s expressed how much he’s enjoyed these outings. On one memorable occasion, they took a trip to the North Shore which included a car ferry ride.

“We went on the ferry, which was a great chance for me to visit a special place, something I don’t get to do often nowadays. I really enjoyed it,” beams Fred.

Impact of their friendship

Keith’s relationship with Fred has slowly evolved over time. Their weekly visits have brought Fred out of his shell, and now he’s much more expressive.

For Keith: “It’s fulfilling to think that I might be the highlight of his day, as he often expresses relief when we head out somewhere. Seeing the transformation in Fred has made me more attuned to the loneliness that can affect seniors in our community. I’ve observed others in his village sitting alone and realised the profound impact companionship can have.”

For Fred: “He is a friend of mine, and I always look at him as a good friend, who treats me with respect. I am a person who likes to enjoy my life, going out, and doing things. It’s been a very positive change to get out and about, whether we go to Keith’s place or out for a drive. I look forward to Keith’s visits each week.”

Words of advice for those considering similar volunteering

Keith: “I would wholeheartedly recommend volunteering with seniors to everyone. It’s a rewarding challenge and offers a sense of satisfaction that surpasses other types of volunteering, such as my previous role at the Salvation Army. This experience allows me to interact with people and bring joy to their lives. By helping someone and bringing joy to their life, you not only make a difference in their world but also enrich your own.”

He continues: “These Tuesday outings have given a new sense of purpose to my week. I wake up with a renewed enthusiasm, knowing that I can take Fred out and that I have something meaningful to look forward to. It’s been a source of genuine contentment for me, making me feel better from the inside out.”

Fred: “I would highly recommend it to a senior. It’s not just a good thing; it’s a rewarding and fulfilling experience that can make a meaningful change to your daily life.”

If you’d like to become a volunteer with In Great Company and make a senior’s life less lonely, or you would like to receive a volunteer:

Become a volunteer or Find a volunteer

Meet the volunteer: Kieran Conway

Meet the volunteer: Kieran Conway

Kieran describes a special connection with Ian, an ailing senior confined to his bed, and how they find solace in the meaningful yet straightforward activities that provide them with a deep sense of fulfilment and appreciation.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, such as your profession, hobbies, or interests?

I go by the name of Kieran Conway. I hail from Derry, Northern Ireland, but I’ve been calling Australia home since 2007, alongside my wife, Kiera. During my rare moments of free time, you’ll find me engrossed in books, enjoying music, or simply just spending time moments with family and friends.

How did you first learn about In Great Company and what inspired you to choose volunteering with older seniors facing social isolation or loneliness?

My wife read about In Great Company and thought it might be right up my alley, given my Irish background and my penchant for engaging in lively conversations and listening to the stories of people’s lives.

Could you provide details about the senior(s) you spend time with and the activities you typically engage in during your visits?

Ian turned out to be the perfect choice for my first companion. He’s of Irish descent, quick-witted, a book enthusiast, and has a treasure trove of fascinating life anecdotes.

Sadly, due to his severe health condition, Ian is entirely bedridden, with limited movement, battling cancer and the pain it brings.

On my first visit, Ian told me that it would be nice to have someone other than medical professionals and retirement home staff to talk to. Ian’s health problems mean he’s unable to talk for long periods, but enjoys watching episodes of Castle or Tipping Point together. He also likes me reading to him; his preferences are Sidney Sheldon and Sherlock Holmes.

When he is able to talk, I love listening to stories from his life and just being some company for him, something he tells me every visit he’s grateful for.

What makes the friendship you’ve formed with your senior client(s) particularly meaningful or unique for you?

One of my dearest memories with Ian revolves around his boundless pride and affection for his children. His two daughters are gifted artists, and their paintings grace the walls of his room.

My time with Ian is incredibly rewarding. When I walk in, his face lights up, and it gives me a sense of purpose, making me eagerly anticipate our visits as well.

Have you gained any insights about yourself or others (personal growth, lessons learned, future actions) through your volunteer experience?

Many of the individuals you volunteer to spend time with have very limited social connections. In my situation, Ian is battling terminal cancer. His days fluctuate between good and bad, yet he never seeks or expects sympathy. I believe he appreciates my visits as a welcome distraction from his circumstances. We engage in conversation, I read to him, we watch TV, but we don’t delve into discussions about his illness, and I sense that means a great deal to him.

Our visits are flexible, and there are times when he’s too weary to chat. During those moments, I simply let him rest and plan to catch up at a later time.

Spending time with Ian has deepened my appreciation for my own health and family.

Do you have any words of encouragement or advice to those interested in joining this program?

I would wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone. It’s genuinely one of the most fulfilling choices I’ve ever made.

Ready to get started with becoming or finding a volunteer?

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Meet the volunteer: Wayne Selfe

Meet the volunteer: Wayne Selfe

Introducing Wayne, a former mechanical engineer who discovered his passion for volunteering with seniors while staying briefly at a cancer lodge. It was during this time that he forged meaningful connections with patients who would inspire him to give back and change his world.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, such as your profession, hobbies, or interests?

I’m a retired mechanical engineer with my last five working years spent managing three engineering workshops and a marine slipway in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. This was both challenging and rewarding, and I also dedicated 60% of my time to teaching as per the government’s visa requirements. My hobbies include fishing, camping, gardening, and reading.

Can you describe your reasons that inspired you to choose volunteering with older seniors facing social isolation or loneliness?

The motivation behind wanting to spend time with seniors came about while spending six weeks with my brother in a cancer lodge in New Zealand, where he was undergoing treatment.

I found that I had a lot of free time between treatments and subsequently spoke with various inhouse patients who were also going through similar procedures. As time progressed, I formed a bond with many patients sharing meals, making them cups of tea, and brightening their day with my antics and jokes.

It was during this experience that I told my brother I would like to try and do something similar once back in Australia.

How did you first learn about In Great Company and how was your experience joining the program?

Not long after arriving back home I noticed an article on Facebook (so it must be real) about becoming a volunteer. I then sent off an enquiry regarding this and an email reply came back the next morning arranging a suitable phone interview time. I found the whole process to be very easy, professional, caring, and courteous.

Could you provide details about the senior(s) you spend time with and the activities you typically engage in during your visits?

As a result, I now get to enjoy some quality time with three amazing new friends:

With Merle (86), a whiz at cards and board games where she invariably beats me!

Gene (86) is another senior I get to spend a few hours with every Monday afternoon. Some of the things I do for Gene include repotting plants, moving furniture, minor plumbing repairs, and discussing our working careers. Gene and I both love our fishing and many a time is spent discussing all things piscatorial.

Robert (96) is a lovely senior gentleman that I spend time with on a Wednesday morning. I usually pick him up from his home and accompany him to a variety of coffee shops, even though he does not drink coffee! We talk about so many different intellectual and intriguing subjects, normally over a cup of lemon ginger tea soaked up with scones jam and cream.

What makes the friendship you’ve formed with your senior client(s) particularly meaningful or unique for you?

At first, I found volunteering a little out of my comfort zone, although now some months on I look forward to the time spent with these seniors. I feel that I am getting an insight and appreciation of people more senior than myself and the appreciation I get in return for being with them.

Have there been any significant challenges or obstacles you’ve faced during your journey as a volunteer with them?

At this point I have not faced any obstacles with these seniors although I feel equipped to deal with this if they arise.

Have you gained any insights about yourself or others through your volunteer experience?

I have met Robert’s wife, his son and daughter and have spent time talking with them.

Many of my friends were surprised when they found out that I volunteer to spend my time with seniors, although when I inform them of the benefits along with the bonds formed, they realise why I do it.

Who would have thought that less than a year ago that my world would change the way it has, I guess I can thank my brother for this.

Do you have any words of encouragement or advice to those interested in joining this program?

My advice is if you have a few spare hours, then look at volunteering with seniors and try and brighten up someone’s day. I can only hope that when my time comes somebody will do the same for me.

If you’d like to become a volunteer like Wayne and make a senior’s life less lonely, you can start the process here.