Canadian seniors are still feeling isolated and lonely. How can I help those in my life?

Older adults in your life may not reach out if they'd like companionship due to stigma, but you can still help.

A beautiful multiracial senior womAccording to a recent report by the National Institute on Aging, 58 per cent of seniors are feeling lonely. (Image via Getty)an
According to a recent report by the National Institute on Aging, 58 per cent of seniors are feeling lonely. (Getty)

Monique Beneteau, a 60-year-old Peterborough, Ont. resident, supports three seniors, all of whom have expressed feelings of isolation or have told her, "I'm lonely."

Her 91-year-old relative has both mobility and hearing issues, limiting him from making connections or participating in activities outside of his home.

She visits a friend with dementia two or three times a week in a long-term care home who feels disconnected from the people around her. Another friend in a long-term care home feels restricted by her mobility issues.

"I'm learning from what I'm seeing [how] easy it is to feel alone," Beneteau said.

The experiences of Beneteau's family and friends are not unique. Experts say seniors have been feeling lonely and isolated for a long time — even before the pandemic — and continue to do so now.

According to a new report released by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), 58 per cent of seniors are feeling lonely and 41 per cent have experienced feelings of social isolation.

The report highlighted significant health effects of isolation and loneliness and how older adults may be especially at risk. Yahoo Canada spoke to experts on the report's findings and how Canadians can better support the seniors in their lives and community.

What does social isolation and loneliness in seniors look like?

Doctor holding patients's hands
Social isolation and loneliness has been linked to health risks. (Image via Getty)

According to the NIA, "social isolation" is characterized by the absence of contacts, friends or family in someone's life, while "loneliness" is related to unfulfilled social needs.

"Not all instances of loneliness are necessarily being caused by social isolation," the report stated. "Some older Canadians may be socially engaged and have larger social networks, but still subjectively perceive that they do not have meaningful connections."

Loneliness and isolation in seniors have been linked to an increased risk of strokes, dementia, coronary heart disease, cancer mortality and premature death.

Dr. Samir Sinha, the director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai and the University Health Network said he sees many patients who are feeling lonely and might be at greater health risks.

"Loneliness can contribute to your stress levels and that can worsen people's physical health and existing conditions," Sinha said.

We need to do a better job at taking this issue seriously.Dr. Samir Sinha

Sinha, a contributor to the NIA report, has spent many years as an advocate for the needs of older adults. The NIA found some factors that contributed to feelings of isolation and loneliness included age, family ties, socioeconomic status, health and possibly immigration status.

Canadians aged 80 years and older appeared to fare better and reported less social isolation and loneliness compared to those in their 50s and 60s. Sinha said more research needs to be done as to why that is, but perhaps people who aren't lonely live longer — "the more grim hypothesis," he said. They could also be more proactive about building meaningful connections to avoid past feelings of loneliness.

How can I help the seniors in my life?

I've been so blessed to be raised by you
Experts say providing companionship through visits, letter writing and phone calls to older adults can improve their mental and physical state. (Image via Getty)

Finding the best ways to help those around you may come with some trial and error, but experts say the little things can go a long way, like a simple phone call or a visit.

Beneteau, the woman who supports three seniors, said she focuses on a person-centred approach, meaning she interacts with each of them to emphasize their unique experiences and perspectives.

"I'm trying to put myself in their shoes," she said. "It's about getting to know that person and their interests and finding things that will be meaningful to them."

For example, one of her friends enjoys discussing current events and philosophical issues. Beneteau said she'd like to arrange a standing phone visit once a week (since her friend lives in Saskatchewan), where they pick a topic, research it beforehand and discuss their options and findings.

"We don't ever run out of things to talk about but it might be fun to spend some time reading about something and it can keep our minds sharp," Beneteau said.

Her other friend, who is quite introverted and feels disconnected from others at her long-term care home, was a little bit more difficult to connect with, she said.

Loneliness can contribute to your stress levels and that can worsen people's physical health.Dr. Samir Sinha

However, Beneteau knew her friend used to watch figure skating competitions before coming to the home and used to skate herself. When Beneteau caught wind of a televised competition happening, she put it on the TV for her friend and they watched the highlights together.

"I haven't seen her that animated in a long time," she said. "She had tears in her eyes at one point and she said 'Thank you for remembering that.'"

Beneteau, an operations and administration coordinator at the Canadian Coalition for Seniors' Mental Health, said she's been grateful to have access to reading material and resources.

"I think loneliness and isolation are not unique to older adults," she said, adding what's unique to older adults is the compounding factors of mobility and hearing issues, and possibly cognitive decline. "And all of those things put more barriers up to being able to connect and engage with others. I think those are the things that we need to be vigilant [about] and watch for."

How can I identify barriers in older adults?

The elder in a wheelchair plays with his family lovingly in the house, the morning sun shines through the glass.
As the holidays approach, Dr. Samir Sinha says it's important to keep older adults in mind, considering they may be feeling particularly lonely. (Image via Getty)

Due to stigma, fears of being a burden and ageism, older adults in your life may not reach out if they'd like companionship, so it's good to be proactive in identifying their needs and barriers.

Think about things like transportation. Sinha noted, if an older adult is no longer driving, do they know how to take the bus? He added some transit groups offer transit training programs that can make it less daunting.

Keep in mind taxis and bus fares can cost money, so if you'd like to help in keeping things affordable, offer a ride if you can. Emphasizing that someone is not being a burden and you can pick them up might encourage them to make it to that family gathering.

"Especially as the holidays approach, it's a good opportunity for us to think about all the people in our lives and how some might be more at risk for experiencing loneliness over the holidays," Sinha said.

Sometimes it's just those little meaningful social connections... that can make a huge difference.Dr. Samir Sinha

Sinha aided in creating 300 Active Living Centres, or senior centres, where older adults decide the programming and activities they want. Being aware of senior centres in your area and what is offered in the community can be helpful for older friends and family in your life.

"And in some cases, you can find [communities] online. They don't need to even physically leave their house," said Sinha. "But maybe they might need some tech support or support on how to use something online."

Other barriers can include affordability issues (if you're hoping to go to an expensive restaurant), bathroom accessibility and building designs.

But, Sinha said making small tweaks to plans or having those kinds of considerations can help make older adults feel more included.

"Sometimes it's just those little meaningful social connections, like stopping in for a tea while you're running errands, that can make a huge difference."

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