Opinion Piece: Lonely Seniors Suffer in Silence

Michael Kary, Director of Policy and Research
Michael Kary, Director of Policy and Research

The following opinion piece by Michael Kary, Director of Policy and Research, explores the increasing prevalence of social isolation among seniors and its link chronic and mental illness such as chronic lung disease, arthritis, impaired mobility and dementia. Over the coming months you can expect to see a number of opinion articles from Kary. Be sure to check back frequently for new content from our research department. Read the article below to learn about the pressing issue of social isolation among seniors and why it is critical that we act now.

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Opinion: Lonely Seniors Suffer in Silence

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December 1st, 2014- Michael Kary, Director of Policy and Research, BC Care Providers Association

Almost daily we see news stories about vulnerable seniors. Although much attention is paid to access or the quality of care seniors receive; other areas, often outside the health system that impact health outcomes, are in many cases neglected.  One such important issue is that of social isolation.

Social isolation touches many areas of a seniors’ lives, including active participation in the community and healthy ageing. According to a 2012 study of the National Academy of Sciences, both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older.[1] As people get older, their likelihood of living alone increases. With the aging population and approximately 25% of the Canadian population to be over 65 in the next twenty years the problem of social isolation is likely to increase.

In a 2012 Statistics Canada report, nearly one in four seniors reported that they would like to participate more in social activities. Statistics Canada’s 2008/09 Canadian Community Health Survey also found that about one-fifth of seniors felt left out, isolated from others, or that they lacked companionship.[2]

Research shows that social isolation can have detrimental effects on health. As reported in a 2009 U.S. study using data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, seniors who feel lonely and isolated are more likely to report having poor physical and/or mental health.[3] One study notes isolation is as strong a factor in early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,[4] while another notes loneliness can be twice as unhealthy as obesity increasing changes of early death by 14 percent.[5]

Social isolation is also a factor in the development of chronic illnesses such as chronic lung disease, arthritis and impaired mobility.[6]  Research also shows that increased loneliness can lead to depression as well as cognitive decline and increased risk of dementia.  Along with increasing the risks of mental and physical illness, social isolation can also lead to increased vulnerability to elder abuse and development of addictions.[7] Finally, according to a 2004 BC Ministry of Health report, loneliness and social isolation are major predictors of seniors utilizing home care services and entering nursing homes.[8]

Many factors can lead to increased social isolation among seniors including one’s mental and physical health status, elder abuse and neglect, physical and geographic isolation, loss of spouse, transportation challenges and even sexual orientation.

There are a variety of ways to deal with social isolation including encouraging greater community participation such as volunteering and classes to provide education and physical activity opportunities for seniors. Technology is also one potential way to reduce isolation by encouraging seniors, who may have limited mobility, to use the internet and on-line technologies to communicate.  Other critical components will be investing in seniors housing options and communities that reduce isolation as well as foster civic engagement and acceptance for alternative lifestyles.

There are encouraging signs that governments and stakeholders are starting to look more seriously at the issue of social isolation and its impact on seniors.  In October 2014, for example, the Federal-Provincial Ministers Responsible for Seniors’ directed work on two priority areas one of which included sharing promising approaches and innovative solutions to address social isolation among seniors, including those living in rural and remote communities.[9]

In 2013, the National Seniors Council (NSC), which consists of various experts on seniors, was also tasked to assess how social isolation affects seniors and explore ways to prevent and reduce social isolation of seniors in Canada. In this regard, the NSC has hosted a series of forums across Canada and released a comprehensive report on the topic on November 24, 2014 focusing on four areas including raising public awareness, improving access to information and services for seniors, building collective capacity through social innovation and supporting research.[10] The federal government has also invested funding through its New Horizons for Seniors Program (NHSP). Since 2006, the NHSP has funded more than 13,000 projects across Canada that focus on issues like elder abuse, social isolation and intergenerational learning. Most recently, it approved 24 NHSP pilot projects—an investment of more than $1.7 million—aimed at addressing the social isolation of seniors.[11]

While these investments are encouraging, governments must continue to work jointly with seniors and stakeholders, including those in the continuing care sector, to develop concrete solutions that can address the main causes and concerns behind the issue of social isolation among seniors. As a first step, the federal government should commit to work with stakeholders to implement the recommendations outlined in the NSC report. Now is the time for action on this important issue as seniors can no longer afford to suffer in silence.


[1] Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Andrew Steptoe et al. February 15, 2013. Accessed at: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/15/5797.full

[2] Canadian Community Health Survey – Healthy Aging (CCHS). May 2010. Accessed at: http://www23.statcan.gc.ca/imdb/p2SV.pl?Function=getSurvey&SDDS=5146

[3] Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation and Health among Older Adults. Erin Cronwell and Linda Waite. Journal Health Soc Behav. March 2009; 50(1): 31-48. Accessed at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2756979/

[4] Holt-Lunstadt, J., Smith, T.B., and Layton, B.L. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine, p. 12. Retrieved from http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1000316  and Duncan Selbie:

‘Being isolated is equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day’. The Guardian. March 12, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/mar/12/duncan-selbie-isolated-bad-health

[5] Loneliness twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people, study finds. The Guardian.  Ian Sample. February 16, 2014. Accessed at: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/feb/16/loneliness-twice-as-unhealthy-as-obesity-older-people. The scientists tracked more than 2,000 people aged 50 and over and found that the loneliest were nearly twice as likely to die during the six-year study than the least lonely.

[6] Steptoe, A., Shankar, A., Demakakos, P., and Wardle, J. (2013). Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women, p. 5797. Accessed at: http://www.imfcanada.org/sites/default/files/Growing_Old_Alone_April_2014.pdf

[7] 20 Facts About Senior Isolation That Will Stun You. Posted On 17 Oct 2014

By : Sarah Stevenson http://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/10-17-14-facts-about-senior-isolation/

[8] Social Isolation Among Seniors: An Emerging Issue; An Investigation by the Children’s Women’s and Seniors Health Branch. BC Ministry of Health. Accessed at: https://www.health.gov.bc.ca/library/publications/year/2004/Social_Isolation_Among_Seniors.pdf

[9] Press Release – On-going collaboration to support the well-being of seniors living in Canada. FPT Ministers Responsible for Seniors Meeting. October 16, 2014. Accessed at: http://www.scics.gc.ca/english/Conferences.asp?a=viewdocument&id=2242

[11] Minister Wong meets with National Seniors Council and holds roundtable on social isolation of seniors. July 16, 2014. Accessed at: http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=868029