When Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, announced the appointment of a “minister of loneliness” in early 2018, there was some dismissive joking about dour British people and gloomy weather. But researchers who study social isolation applauded the move as a much needed acknowledgement of a problem that rarely gets discussed.
About one in five Canadians experience some degree of loneliness or social isolation. While it can affect anyone at any age, social isolation is especially acute among seniors over the age of 80 who often face additional challenges like the death of a spouse, children moving away and the lack of social interaction once provided by the workplace.
In 2017 Canada’s National Seniors Council released a report with some worrisome statistics about the prevalence of social isolation among seniors. Among them:
Research has found that loneliness and social isolation can have serious repercussions on both your mental and physical health. They’ve been linked to depression, higher levels of cortisol, changes in immune response, disrupted sleep and increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. Loneliness and isolation are also associated with poorer cognitive function among older adults and a higher risk of dementia.
If you’re feeling lonely or isolated—or just want to take action to reduce the likelihood of feeling isolated—there are many things you can do. Here are a few ways to combat social isolation and enrich your daily life in the process.
If you have the time and energy, consider volunteering for a non-profit organization whose mission you support. It’s a great way to connect with people, acquire new skills and fill your life with a sense of purpose. If you live near a school and enjoy spending time with children, you can reach out to the school’s administration and volunteer to read books to kids or teach crafts to kindergarteners.
If you are a churchgoer, or have been in the past, consider getting more involved in your church. Faith communities can be an important source of social support. Some seniors’ communities, such as Christenson Communities in Alberta, even provide volunteer opportunities to residents, making it easier to get involved.
Do you love reading the latest best sellers and wish you could discuss them with others? Join a book club—public libraries, community centres and seniors’ communities will often have them. If you can’t find a book club you like, talk to the bookworms in your community and form your own.
If you walk to stay active, form a walking club and turn it into a social activity. From gardening and knitting to scrapbooking and mall walking, the list of activities you can build a social club around is almost endless.
What hobbies did you love when you were younger? What new skill would you like to learn? You can find everything from yoga for seniors to watercolour painting classes at your neighbourhood community centre. Public libraries often offer a range of programs and events where you can learn new skills and meet new people.
If you live in a seniors’ community, whether it’s independent living or supportive living, you’ll find a range of recreational services and leisure activities that are tailored to different activity levels and allow you to build friendships with other residents.
Pet owners know that a furry (or scaly, or feathered) companion can be a great source of companionship and love. As French novelist and Nobel laureate Anatole France once said, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened.”
Numerous studies have also shown that owning a pet can be physically and mentally beneficial for people of all ages. The benefits range from decreased anxiety and a greater sense of purpose (because your pet needs you) to increased physical activity and opportunities to socialize with others.
Seniors considering pet adoption need to keep a few things in mind:
There’s no promise that any of these actions will make you immune to feelings of loneliness and isolation. After all, these emotions are part of being human. But all of these recommendations offer opportunities to enrich your life, meet new people and learn new things.
The best piece of advice for anyone experiencing chronic feelings of isolation and loneliness is this: tell someone. Talk to your children, doctor, pastor or next door neighbour. Asking for help is the first step to feeling better.