As we get older, the risk of social isolation increases significantly. But the truth is, social isolation doesn’t have to be part of aging.
Social isolation is the lack of meaningful communication, contact or interaction and can be caused by a variety of factors, such as: the loss of a spouse or care partner, living in a rural or remote community, mobility restrictions, language barriers, and/or low income, just to name a few.
This lack of communication or contact can have a profound impact on a person’s health and well-being, including their physical, emotional, and/or mental health. Older adults who are socially isolated may be more likely to fall, experience feelings of depression, functional decline, have poorer cognitive function, a higher risk for dementia, and an increase in visits to the emergency department.
It is important, as we age, to find ways to stay connected, whether that is through personal connections, participating in community programs, reaching out to faith-based organizations, or accessing social services. Overcoming social isolation is crucial to maintaining a healthy and fulfilling life.
Collaborating to reduce social isolation
The Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging (RIA) with funding from the RTOERO Foundation, and in consultation with community partners and Woolwich Township, developed a community conversation guide to help family, friends, and community members understand and recognize the signs of social isolation.
Originally published with a local lens, the RIA and RTOERO Foundation quickly realized the value of sharing this resource on a broader scale. The RTOERO Foundation provided additional funding to develop a national version which is available in both English and French.
“It can be difficult to talk about social isolation as knowing what to say or what to do isn’t always obvious. This community conversation guide is intended to be a tool to help community members develop a level of comfort in helping others. Being able to disseminate this resource widely across Canada means increased opportunities to reach those who would directly benefit from the guide the most,” said Mike Prentice, Executive Director, RTOERO Foundation.
Social isolation as we age
Nearly 30 percent of Canadian seniors are at risk of experiencing social isolation and reports by Statistics Canada show that 19-24 percent of Canadians over the age of 65 feel isolated and wish they could participate in more social activities.
In addition, over the next 20 years, Canada’s senior population – those aged 65 and older – is expected to grow by almost 70 per cent, to more than 10.4 million people.
Those numbers tell us there are and will be a lot of people experiencing social isolation. Recognizing the signs of social isolation and understanding how to help will be crucial to ensuring people feel connected, engaged, and live more fulfilled lives. The Supporting Your Neighbours: A Community Conversation Guide provides information about the health impacts of social isolation, signs to look out for, common barriers, and tips to help.
There are a variety of reasons a person may experience social isolation. Here are five risk factors that may lead to a greater risk of social isolation:
- Have experienced a recent or significant loss, such as the death of a spouse/care partner.
- Live in a rural or isolated area.
- Have a language barrier, such as speaking a language other than what is common in the community, or is a recent immigrant.
- Are a care partner for someone.
- Have health conditions that make them vulnerable or frail.
To read the detailed list of risk factors, click here.
Signs to look out for
One of the most effective ways to identify and support older adults who may be experiencing social isolation is through a community approach. When we work together as a community, we can help reduce social isolation and ensure access to community support and resources.
Being aware of the signs of social isolation can help you identify changes or important considerations for someone’s well-being. Here are five questions you can ask that may help you identify an older adult who may be experiencing social isolation:
- Have they shared that they’re feeling lonely or secluded?
- How is their hygiene? Are they getting dressed or staying in the same clothes/pajamas for long periods of time?
- Is their home maintained? Driveway shoveled, lawn mowed, garbage on the curb?
- Has their behavior changed or have they recently stopped going to social events they used to enjoy?
- Are they more forgetful, or are they having a hard time remembering new information, or forgetting how to do a common task?
To read the detailed list of signs to look out for, click here.
Other ways to help
Sometimes an older adult just needs someone to talk to or to feel that someone cares. In other times, an older adult may need more support than what you alone can provide. Here are a few tips for how you can help someone who may be experiencing social isolation:
- Be a social companion/friend
- Help with tasks around their house or in their daily lives, such as mowing the lawn, or driving them to appointments.
- Recommend a program or service.
- Make an effort to understand how you can support and empower older adults who belong to equity-deserving groups.
Organizations also have an opportunity to be part of the solution, including:
- Social isolation training for staff, and how they can support an older adult who may need assistance.
- Check-in on older adults within the organization
- Be aware of community service providers who offer support to older adults, for referrals and collaboration opportunities.
We all need meaningful social connections and this is especially true for those most susceptible to social isolation. It’s important we all recognize the impact of social isolation and take steps to reduce it.
Would you know what to say or do if you saw a neighbour in need?
For more information about how to help someone experiencing social isolation, read the Supporting Your Neighbours: A Community Conversation Guide.
About the RTOERO Foundation
The RTOERO Foundation is among few Canadian foundations that focuses exclusively on healthy and active aging. They invest strategically in three critical areas: Geriatric research, Senior’s health and well-being, and social engagement. To read more about the RTOERO Foundation, visit: rtoero.ca/about/