Aya Mahder-Bashi is a Master of Public Health student at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and a practicum student at Women’s College Research Institute. Dr. Rachel Savage is a post-doctoral fellow at Women’s College Research Institute.
While the health-care needs of aging adults have rightly been the focus of preparations for our aging society, politicians have largely ignored a need of equal importance – social connection.
One of the key factors associated with longevity is being socially connected, involved and engaged. Older adults’ social networks may change as they age because of mobility issues, declines in health and the death of friends and family – all of which put them at higher risk for loneliness and social isolation. According to the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, more than 40 per cent of older adults are lonely. In Canada, estimates are lower but still alarming, particularly for women. One in four women and one in five men report feeling lonely at least some of the time, according to data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. This will become an even greater issue as a growing number of baby boomers continue to age.
While loneliness may seem an unlikely candidate to top political agendas, news headlines around the world have started to warn of its dangers and call for action. A 2015 report in the peer-reviewed academic journal Perspectives on Psychological Science found that loneliness is as harmful to our health and longevity as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even more dangerous than obesity. Evidence shows that chronic loneliness is linked to a multitude of ailments such as depression, suicidal behaviour and memory impairment. Because of this, loneliness has been described as a public-health crisis that costs us all.
There are things we can all do to tackle loneliness in older adults. If you or someone you know is lonely, reaching out is important. There are community services that are available to help, from telephone-befriending services, home-visiting programs and social prescribing, which connects people who visit their primary-care providers with local community services and programs best suited to their needs. We can volunteer and consider programs such as home-sharing to provide companionship.
But as a matter of public health, the government has a responsibility to play a role in addressing this problem. That’s especially true when it comes to how our neighbourhoods are designed: Urban-design elements such as the presence of parks or public gathering places, walkability, access to amenities and services, safety and public transportation all impact loneliness. This is especially true for older adults who spend more time in their immediate neighbourhoods compared to other age groups who may travel for work and school. Although provincial and national seniors’ strategies (for instance, Ontario’s Action Plan for Seniors and the National Seniors Strategy for Canada) recognize the importance of enhancing neighbourhoods to promote social connectivity, progress has been slow. In our own research, we have found that just 6 per cent of urban and suburban retirement homes in Ontario are located in highly walkable neighbourhoods. This needs to change.
New York’s Age-Friendly NYC strategy can be seen as a global example we should look to in this regard. It recently announced 86 initiatives it is undertaking to improve the quality of life for older residents across health and social services, housing, public spaces and transportation, and public safety. These initiatives include redeveloping sites to create affordable housing units for older adults within pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods; piloting a program to provide publicly funded, door-to-door car services for older adults so that they can stay socially engaged; and improving access to parks and green spaces by redesigning park entrances and boundaries so that they are safer, more accessible and welcoming.
Loneliness is a public-health issue that needs our attention to help older adults stay connected. As individuals and as a country, we must take notice. We can all do our part to ensure no older adult feels that they have no one to turn to. We also need government leadership that is willing to take action to improve the quality of older adults’ lives. The time is now for all of us and governments, at all levels, to invest in age-friendly neighbourhoods, and in all of our health.