One of my clients calls me at least once a week to check on me. She makes sure I am doing well and then she talks to me about her life. She tells me how she used to make jam with her husband: "He would put on an apron and do whatever I said," she'll say, and then she makes me promise that if I ever make jam, I'll use a wide-bottomed copper jam pot. My client took a liking to me when I went to assess what kind of home care she needed and she got my office number from her niece.
I know that she calls me because she is lonely. So I listen. I talk back. I ask questions. I tell her it is unlikely I will ever have time to make jam, but if I do, I'll be sure to follow her instructions. But last week, I was swamped. I was in and out of meetings. I cut her short. She hasn't called back.
According to Statistics Canada, as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians report feeling lonely.
The problem of loneliness is not senior specific. We live in an increasingly isolated society, which has affected the health and mental well-being of people of all ages in Canada. And while there are no bullet points that can solve this issue, there are some things that can help.
Do not expect technology to solve this problem
There is no substitute for in-person contact, and many technological tools that are supposed to make it easier to connect are baffling to seniors. This is not the fault of the senior in your life. I repeat: This is not nonna's fault. It is the fault of tech companies who aim their products at superusers and early adopters. Seniors very rarely fall into these categories. We need to stop trying to make FaceTime a replacement for actual face time.
Encourage your loved one to get outside
Nature is the opposite of technology. Put help in place so your elderly loved one can get to a park, or meet a friend for lunch. Many cities are recognizing the importance of outdoor meeting places and are building them into their urban designs. Portland, Ore., has turned its intersections into urban piazzas, and Berlin turned unused lofts into community gardens. Research has shown that variation in a streetscape makes pedestrians walk slower and be more in tune with the people and nature in their surroundings. Even just cutting through a park can lead to feeling less isolated, more generous and more social.
Encourage your loved one to volunteer
Volunteering, even once a week, can help bolster a senior's self worth and put him in contact with others.
Encourage your loved one to learn a new skill
It is never too late for the senior citizen in your life to take a course or learn something she has always wanted to learn.
Get your loved one a pet
Taking care of someone or something is one of the greatest joys in life and will help a senior with feelings of isolation. Owning and caring for a pet can also lead to getting out more and can be a conversation starter.
Do not dismiss loneliness as inconsequential. Humans are meant to be social, and if we do not get enough human contact, our quality of life diminishes. My work often centres on the physical needs of my clients: medication, food, hygiene. This year, I am working to ensure that we do not lose sight of our clients' emotional needs as well. And first on my to-do list is to give my jam-loving friend a ring.
Renée Henriques is a registered nurse and the owner and managing director of ComeForcare Home Care Toronto, providing personal support services to seniors. Her passion for seniors and their families stems from her past work as a neurosurgical nurse, and her experience going through a care-giving journey with her own family members.