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Gregor Sneddon is the executive director of the non-profit HelpAge Canada, which focuses on helping people 65 and older cope with their feelings of loneliness.Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail

When asked about loneliness, Gregor Sneddon recalls a visit he made to a single senior woman who was blind and lived alone. She relied on volunteers to bring her food and medications.

Mr. Sneddon, executive director of the non-profit HelpAge Canada, went into her fridge during his visit and found a jar full of mould.

“And this woman still managed to be cheerful and so grateful to have somebody come to visit her,” says Mr. Sneddon, whose organization’s mandate is to address isolation and loneliness in the mature population.

“Just imagine facing the world alone. You have nobody to share a meal with. You have nobody to share your day with, to speak to, to reflect and engage in who you are.”

Knowing that we are needed and that we belong is a primal human need, he says.

“Without that, we deteriorate very quickly.”

Census data shows almost one in four Canadians aged 65 and older live alone and about half over the age of 80 report feeling lonely, according to a report from the National Seniors Council.

Numerous studies have linked loneliness to health issues including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, mental health struggles, and the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“It existed before COVID but COVID has certainly had an impact … There has been quite an increase in social isolation,” says Suzanne Dupuis-Blanchard, chairperson of the National Seniors Council and research chair in population aging of the Consortium national de formation en santé at the Université de Moncton.

Social isolation and loneliness have nearly the same detrimental effects on health as smoking, says Dr. Dupuis-Blanchard, who is also director of the Centre on Aging at the university. Beyond quality of life, it can affect the immune response, disrupt sleep and cognitive impacts, she adds.

“There’s even an increase in the likelihood of falls and in suicide among seniors,” she says.

A few years ago, the loneliness crisis in the U.K. spurred that country’s government to appoint an official “minister of loneliness,” pointing out that about 200,000 older people reported not having had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.

Raising awareness among the public and health care professionals is a big part of tackling the issue, Dr. Dupuis-Blanchard says.

“If people start thinking about who’s in their environment, who are their neighbours and whether they have an older adult that they haven’t seen in a while, maybe there’s something that can be done outdoors, or just even a chat, a call or something,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the simplest thing of checking in and having a quick call. It goes a long way.”

There is a vast network of organizations from coast to coast doing outreach to older Canadians but it is a generation not always inclined to ask for help, she says.

“Some of them have said when we ask for help, that means we’re losing some of our independence, some of our autonomy,” she says. “They don’t want to show signs of weakness or vulnerability.”

Many mature people want to age in place and they fear asking for help will lead to long-term care, she says.

“They sometimes don’t realize that accepting help will actually provide just that little lift they need to regain independence and regain that confidence in themselves,” she says.

The World Health Organization says social isolation and loneliness among older people are a growing public health and public policy concern.

In the Niagara region, where about 23 per cent of the population is aged 65-plus (compared to about 15 per cent nationally), the volunteer-driven Community Support Services of Niagara partners with a number of other government and non-profit agencies to keep seniors connected.

“I have worked with individuals with dementia and with seniors in general for the majority of my career, and I see the direct impact of social isolation,” says program manager Lynne Rousseau. “We connect with our clients multiple times a week to just check in, make sure that everything is going well.”

Two of the most impactful programs are the “Friendly Visit” and “Lunch Out,” says Ms. Rousseau. The lunch program was suspended during the pandemic but friendly visits continue by phone, and the region teamed with Brock University students for a reminiscence program, where students conducted a series of telephone sessions with area seniors to talk about their lives.

Alongside standard programs like Meals on Wheels, the organization is part of the Niagara Gatekeepers, a collaboration of neighbours, family, and front line service workers from pharmacists to bank tellers trained to identify signs of isolation or potential danger and refer at-risk seniors to partner agencies for support.

Jennifer Butera, manager of outreach services and seniors’ community programs for the Niagara Region, says the Gatekeepers referral line normally receives about 100 calls a year. In 2020, the line received 655 calls.

“We definitely saw a need for that connection,” she says.

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