Breaking down the barriers
Even as the term 'social networking' has become part of our lexicon, loneliness has trebled. Mia Lacy wants to change that.
It’s surprising for a person used to throwing the spotlight on others when it shines in their direction.
So it is when I meet Mia, long known in Cairns for her PR abilities.
She has changed career and it is her first time as interviewee ever.
It doesn’t take long for me to realise that Mia is every bit as passionate about this new venture and she is likely to be just as busy, if not more.
Social Visitor is a service with no geographical boundaries that offers quality conversation time, Skype calls to loved ones, short videos and memoir writing for people who are socially isolated – typically, the elderly.
It helps people to reconnect with the world outside their door. It’s a fee-for-service enterprise, which differentiates it from nonprofit and non-governmental organisations.
The idea for Social Visitor, which Mia says is a world first, was spawned from Mia’s career in PR and a lifetime of creativity, but it also has big family origins.
Mia was born in New Zealand, to a Kiwi mother and German father. Her family moved to Cairns when she was two and they had a cane farm between Palm Cove and Clifton Beach.
Mia went to Caravonica School by day, and her father attended in the evenings to learn English.
She recalls a warm household in which three generations made their home and exchanged stories. Mia says she loves that she lived with her grandmother and had the benefit of her advice while growing up.
“I was very lucky to have three generations living under the one roof,” she says. “I did my first memoir of my grandmother.”
Memoir writing originated as an idea for an activity for a social visitor to do with a client but it became so popular it has become a much larger part of Social Visitor’s services.
Jotting down the pathway one has taken in life, its trials and joys, one’s achievements and disappointments, and even the wisdoms one learns, is something people often intend to do but rarely get around to.
When it comes to our parents and grandparents, it can, sadly, be too late when we want to write down what they have to say.
“It’s a shame to hear someone say, ‘I wish I’d asked my mother about that’,’’ Mia says. “People love the memoirs. It is a lovely gift to give.”
Mia credits her career in copywriting and PR for her ability to bring ideas to fruition. She began her career as a copywriter for one of the world’s top advertising agencies, McCann Erickson in Auckland, where she lived in her twenties.
“I enjoyed the fact I was able to be creative and that they nurtured ideas,” Mia says. “It’s all very well getting the idea but you have to nurture the idea, and bring it out.
“It’s like presenting your child for the first time in the world. Ideas are very fragile.
“They nourished and nurtured ideas and it was great to have creative people as a positive influence.”
Mia is well known in Cairns for her ideas for the tourism industry in the PR firm she founded, Libra Communications, which had high-end clients and a celebrity contact book.
Meeting TV personalities like Gold Logie winner Karl Stefanovic and the lively Kerri-Anne Kennerley was all part of the deal during a 25-year career promoting the region in its heyday, from the launch of Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Centre to the opening of new hotels such as the Shangri-La.
“I had a wonderful career in PR in tourism in Cairns and it really satisfied my urge for creativity,” Mia says. “The best thing was I always knew they were great products I was supporting.”
Mia passed the baton of her company in a deliberate move, and launched her new business in September last year.
“I had always planned to transit when I reached the age of 50,” Mia says. “The idea for Social Visitor had already come to me and I thought, how original an idea, so I started to develop a business plan.
”I knew there was an unfulfilled need to meet the social esteem needs of people who are lonely.”
So it is now to the most vulnerable in society that Mia has turned her attentions. As research, Mia spent 18 months visiting people in residential care to find out their social needs.
“I really loved it,” she says.
She is now one of 30 people on a national taskforce for social isolation that seeks social inclusion programs.
“The main plan is to bring loneliness out of the closet, and to have people realise that we can help,” Mia says.
Mia’s fee-paying Social Visitor service doesn’t provide nursing, housekeeping, or personal care assistance, but bases itself on the joys for people of simple human contact, whether it is just an unstructured conversation, listening to a book or the newspaper being read out aloud or enjoying a game of cards.
Simple it may seem, but it certainly also seems necessary. Mia’s research into social isolation yields results that are chilling.
“In 15 years from 1995 to 2010, the number of people who said they have no close confidantes has trebled,” Mia says.
“Social isolation affects over 65s predominantly, and it is over 10 per cent of the over 65s population,” she says, quoting from a La Trobe University study.
“It can affect health and is comparable to high blood pressure, lack of exercise, obesity and smoking.
”Loneliness not only alters behaviour but shows up in measurements of stress hormones, immune function and cardiovascular function.”
In an age when social media and internet technology connects the world more than ever, it is surprising to imagine people living in such lonely circumstances. Mia says there is a huge stigma attached, and people are shy about admitting a problem.
“People enjoy company and their isolation is due to no fault of their own,” she says.
Mia blames stark changes in society, from the break-up of the nuclear family, to people moving further away for better jobs.
It must be some consolation for children of isolated parents to know they can arrange a companion for at least an hour and not have to rely on community services.
Mia’s current social visitors and memoir writers are women in their 50s and 60s.
“I also wanted to create an opportunity for that demographic,” Mia says. “I make sure people are well-matched as it is extremely delicate going through someone’s life.
”Social visitors switch from entertainer to listener, from storyteller to confidante.”
While Social Visitor embraces social media, helping clients connect with family through Skype and other online portals, Mia maintains there is nothing like face-to-face contact, which is essential for human beings.
“We have to pay attention to people’s need for self esteem,” Mia says. “We all need to feel valued.”
Mia’s service has co-ordinators in every capital city and is growing daily but she is not content for people to just use her service.
She also wants them to look around them and see what they can do themselves to help others who are socially isolated, especially during Social Inclusion week next month, from November 24 to December 2.
“It’s a three-part plan,” Mia says of her vision that includes all of us.
The first part is to ring a relative. The second is to “cop a cuppa”; that is, take someone out for a cup of tea or take a packet of biscuits around to their house and make time for a chat. The third part of the plan is to just open up more to those around us.
“We see people every day of our lives, who we know are lonely, so just say something,” Mia says. “Ten minutes will make a huge difference to their day and you won’t even notice it.”
On my way to meet Mia, I imagined she had chosen a wind-down career, and would be living at a much slower pace but as we drive into town for her lunch appointment, she tells me she hopes to reach a stage where she isn’t working on weekends, and I conclude some things will never change.
To buy social time for someone you know, ph: 1300 787 176 or visit www.socialvisitor.com.au. The first session is free.
Social Visitor is available for those at home, in residential care or in hospital, and all visitors have police clearance.
To learn more about Social Inclusion Week, visit www.socialinclusionweek.com.au
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