Human beings are social creatures. It is often the relationships we have with each other that give life meaning and purpose. I know I define myself first as a mother, and it is my greatest joy. As John Donne famously wrote in 1624, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Simply put, we need each other.
Think of the last time something really great happened. Did you share it with someone? What about your last birthday? Did you celebrate with family and friends? For most of us, the answer is yes. But as we age, our network of family and friends starts to shrink, leaving us vulnerable to social isolation. And because no man or woman is an island, loneliness can actually be detrimental to our health.
Seniors aged 65 and older consistently rank family and friendship second only to health as the most important things in life. Feeling connected makes us feel loved and valued, and this in turn has a positive effect on our health. But with life comes inevitable change, and these transitions can be difficult for anyone. Children leave the nest, loved ones and friends eventually pass away, leaving behind a void in a once full life.
Approximately 50 per cent of people over the age of 80 in one national survey reported feeling lonely. It’s important to differentiate between being alone and being lonely. Some folks like living alone and still feel connected to the community at large, perhaps through a church group or seniors centre. Loneliness is something far different. It’s subjective – it’s a feeling of deep-seated unhappiness that stems from a lack of close, meaningful relationships and can become pervasive. Loneliness can be a side-effect of social isolation.
So who is most at risk of being socially isolated? A 2014 study from Canada’s National Council on Aging reported a variety of risk factors including: living alone, being age 80 or older, having multiple chronic conditions that may limit social outings, having no contact with family and low-income status. The death of a spouse and losing a driver’s licence can further increase the likelihood of becoming socially isolated.
Being lonely can also be hazardous to a person’s health. Lonely people are more likely to get colds and infections due to the effect it has on the immune system. Social isolation is also a predictor of mortality from coronary heart disease and stroke.
Loneliness is often a silent pain, as we don’t talk about those types of feelings openly. Sometimes, it’s hard to even acknowledge that we feel that way. A few questions developed in a National Council on Aging presentation can help a person identify those feelings.
- Do I have someone in my life who understands me?
- Do I have someone I can easily talk to?
- Have I felt close to someone for a long time?
- Do I have a network of friends?
- Do I like my life the way it is?
If the answer was no to any of these questions, it may be time for the individual in question to re-build their support network. Where would a person start? The first place is at their local senior centre. Most centres have a wealth of programs designed to keep seniors engaged and connected.
A recent study from the Columbia Institute in Vancouver found that senior centres play a key role in keeping seniors independent and healthy. “These centres are absolutely essential in dealing with social isolation, which is a key issue for seniors wanting to live long and healthy lives,” says Charlie Beresford, executive director of the Columbia Institute. They offer many opportunities to make those meaningful connections, through book clubs, exercise and meal programs, dance classes and drop-in evenings for example.
The Manitoba Association of Senior Centres, at manitobaseniorcentres.com/locations/winnipeg/, will provide an inquirer with the name and location of a nearby centre.
For housebound individuals, who can’t travel to a nearby centre, A&O Support Services for Older Adults has an excellent program entitled, Senior Centre Without Walls. This is a free telephone group where people call in and connect with other seniors while listening to a variety of programming. There are language lessons, travelogues, a health and wellness speaker series, a book club, and even bingo just to name a few. Registration is required. A copy of the programming guide can be obtained at ageopportunity.mb.ca/services/scww. or by phone at 204-956-6440.
Recognizing that older adults often feel the sting of loneliness the most over the holidays, a private company, Home Instead Senior Care, along with a variety of partners including Victoria Lifeline, A&O, Meals on Wheels and Virgin Radio, launched the eighth annual Be A Santa to A Senior in late November. This program provides gifts and companionship to seniors who otherwise might not receive either over the holidays.
“Seniors are often the most isolated population at Christmas,” said Julie Donaldson, owner of Home Instead. “Many times they do not have visitors during the holidays – compound that with decreased socialization and this can be a very lonely time for them.” Over the last seven years, this program has delivered over 10,000 gifts to local seniors.
As we approach the holiday season, readers are invited to reach out to a senior in their life and let them know they matter. There is much value in learning from another’s life experience, and seniors have so much to share. Their life, and that of their caller, will be richer for it.
Krystal Simpson is a communications officer with Victoria Lifeline, a community service of the Victoria General Hospital Foundation.