While many Canadians look forward to spending time with family and friends during the holidays, this season can be especially challenging for people who feel lonely.
Measures that combat social isolation serve to not only improve outcomes for older individuals, they help to strengthen communities and benefit society as a whole, says Wanda Morris, vice-president of Advocacy for CARP, Canada’s largest advocacy association for older Canadians.
“Social inclusion is not just something that is ‘nice to have’ because the impacts of loneliness are substantial,” she says. For example, isolated seniors are at risk for elder abuse, including financial abuse. They are four to five times more likely to be hospitalized, and have a higher likelihood of falls. In addition, the lack of a supportive social network is linked to a 60 per cent increase in the risk of dementia and cognitive decline.
Social inclusion is one of five categories that are highly important for Canada’s seniors, says Morris. She explains that in preparation for the 2019 federal election, CARP has engaged its membership, volunteers, academics, and other stakeholders and organizations to determine which burning issues affect older Canadians and how they can be addressed.
“We compiled a strategic document with 19 recommendations in five categories that can help to advance the agenda of making Canada the best place to age,” says Morris, who adds that the priority areas form the acronym FACES:
Caregiving & housing supports
Exceptional health care
Specific recommendations for increasing social inclusion ask for investing in resources and supports for people who are experiencing marginalization and social isolation, including transportation, technology and community programs, and funding community programs that support intergenerational interaction.
There are several factors that can contribute to seniors’ isolation, such as the loss of mobility, says Morris, who calls for eliminating physical and other barriers that reduce participation for older adults.
“People may stop venturing out because they are worried about things like falls or breaking their hip. Or they may have lost their driver’s licence,” she says. “Age-friendly communities, where seniors have the confidence they can get from A to B and back again, can help to alleviate this.”
Technologies that address transportation issues, like Uber or the eagerly awaited self-driving car, can be part of the solution, says Morris.
Other technology tools, such as FaceTime or Skype, are helping seniors feel more connected, but Morris cautions that they should not replace face-to-face interactions entirely.
Programs spearheaded by community centres or non-profit organizations have proven to be effective means of engaging many seniors, but Morris sees the need to boost efforts that promote intergenerational interaction as well as support for people who are marginalized. “For example, we know that individuals who don’t have English as a first language and don’t have a large community of people speaking their language can be more isolated. And individuals from the LGBT community experience challenges in environments they may perceive as intolerant,” she says.
“When you look at how Canadians lived five decades ago, you see that the tendency of multiple generations living together has decreased – this has resulted in a loss of knowledge about how we interact across different age groups,” says Morris.
She adds that research confirms that cross-generational interactions are beneficial not just for seniors but also for younger people, and that these personal connections also serve to reduce ageism.
“The more we know about the issues affecting seniors and the interventions that work, the better we can move forward together,” Morris says.
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