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Measuring loneliness

New research hopes to determine whether it is possible to measure loneliness in people with severe or profound disability.

Young man in a wheelchair sitting alone on a balcony“People with this level of disability are reliant on others for pretty much every aspect of their daily lives and have a limited capacity to communicate,” said Anglicare psychologist Dr Kristen Foss who is participating in a research team from the University of Tasmania.

Loneliness has been linked with an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia and early death. “These implications are significant and well researched in the general population,” said Kristen. “It’s really important to determine whether people with severe or profound disabilities feel lonely and, if they do, how those who support them can facilitate social interactions and relationships”.

The research aims to develop a suite of measures to assess loneliness in people with severe or profound disability. “The question is, can loneliness be assessed when people aren’t able to tell you this themselves?” said Kristen. “Loneliness is an internal state and if someone cannot convey a subjective feeling, then it is really difficult to measure”.

Researchers will investigate whether neurobiological measures of stress can be used alongside other assessments. For example, cortisol is the hormone that regulates stress. Studies indicate that people who are lonely have higher levels of cortisol in their bodies, particularly in the morning. “However, often people with severe or profound disability have other complex physical needs so this adds to the challenge of the research,” said Kristen.

Kristen said the researchers would also like to identify whether environments – created or natural - could be used to support social engagement for people with severe or profound disability. She recently presented on the subject at a conference of the International Association of the Scientific Study in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. “There’s been very little research done on this worldwide,” she said. “Those who attended the conference told me it was important work and they were keen to hear about our progress”.

“Because of the difficulties involved, researchers have just left this area alone - which is one of the reasons I’m determined to keep going”.

Anglicare provides a range of disability services across Tasmania.