As Canada’s baby-boomers head into retirement over the next two decades, social isolation is expected to be an increasingly pressing seniors’ issue—an issue that touches on a range of policy areas such as healthy ageing, income security, care-giving, and elder abuse.
Approximately 4.8 million Canadians are currently 65 years old or older. In the next 25 years, that number is estimated to double to almost nine million people, representing one quarter of the population.
In light of this, the National Senior’s Council (NSC) has made social isolation and its effect on seniors a new focus of study for 2013/14 with the aim of finding ways to prevent and reduce its incidence.
“Social isolation affects the health and well-being of seniors,” Alice Wong, Minister of State for Seniors, said in a recent statement. “That’s why it’s so important to address this issue by listening to seniors and consulting with key players from the non-profit, public, and private sectors.”
Often accompanied by prolonged loneliness, social isolation has been linked to a host of mental and physical illnesses such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, as well as increased rates of personal disorders, addiction, and suicide.
Isolation can also lead to an increased vulnerability to elder abuse, says the NSC.
David Conn, a geriatric psychiatrist and the co-chair of the Canadian Coalition for Senior’s Mental Health, agrees that more research into senior’s isolation is essential because it often happens behind closed doors and can easily fall under the radar.
“We’re always trying to reach people who are isolated, or perhaps afraid to leave their home, or they may be afraid to actually come to a hospital or a clinic,” says Conn, also VP of education at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, a world-leading institute for innovation in aging and brain health.
He says chronically isolated seniors can easily become depressed and reclusive.
“When people get depressed they have much less energy, less interest to maintain relationships with other people. So there’s a real tendency when people are depressed for them to become isolated. They’ll often push away family members—they may be irritable and negative, and so people may naturally stay away.”
Seniors often become isolated when their spouse or close friends or family pass away or fall ill, or when children move far away from the family home. Retirement can also lead to isolation as networks and social roles narrow, explains Conn.
Ruth Maria Adria, chair of the Elder Advocates of Alberta Society and a former registered nurse, says seniors’ isolation can also be found in unexpected places such as long-term care and nursing homes.
Overworked care staff and lack of family visits can lead to isolation, despite the fact that these seniors are surrounded by other patients.
“We have observed in nursing homes where the elder has no opportunity to speak and no one speaks to them, and [with] no stimulation, individuals become virtually mute,” she wrote in an email.
“Over 40 percent of individuals in long-term care and nursing homes have no visitors.”
But it is important not to stereotype seniors as isolated and helpless, warns Conn, as many remain well-connected and active in their communities through volunteering or cultural, social and religious groups.
Some seniors may need more social interaction than others, he adds, and may simply enjoy quiet alone-time.
“There are a lot of stereotypic views about seniors and isolation and they’re not all true,” says Conn.
“For most people it’s not a good idea to be socially isolated, especially extreme social isolation. [But] another aspect of this is that people vary quite a lot on what is the ideal or optimal amount of social interaction that they have.”
According to interviews with health professionals and seniors for a study published in the Australian Health Review, older people found social connectedness to be strongly associated with overall health, describing social and mental health as being even more important than physical health. They also associated loneliness with poorer overall health.
In addition, the health professionals interviewed reported deterioration in mental and physical health in the elderly when they are socially isolated. They found social health to be at least as important as mental and physical health.
‘‘Social health is dependent on social connectedness as well as the extent to which communities value diversity, are supportive and inclusive, and provide opportunities for each person to participate in community life, as well as the number and quality of social supports and relationships that a person maintains,” said the study.