Suffering in Silence: Solving Seniors Isolation in BC

By Michael Kary and Ravin Johl

Lately there has been significant media attention on the issue of seniors isolation including the detrimental effects it can have on the health of the elderly as well as new approaches to deal with the problem such as the creation of a Ministry of Loneliness in the United Kingdom. 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 sexual orientation.[i]

According to a 2012 Statistics Canada report, for example, nearly one in four seniors reported they would like to participate more in social activities, while a 2008/09 Canadian Community Health Survey found that one-fifth of seniors felt left out, isolated from others, or lacked companionship.[ii] A 2012 study released by the National Academy of Sciences also suggests social isolation and loneliness are associated with higher risks of mortality in older adults.[iii] Other studies note isolation among this cohort is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day,[iv] while another states it can be twice as unhealthy as obesity, increasing chances of early death by 14 per cent.[v]

Social isolation among seniors is also correlated to the development of chronic illnesses such as lung disease, arthritis and impaired mobility.  In particular, research shows that increased loneliness can lead to depression, as well as cognitive decline and an increased risk of dementia.[vi]  Along with increased risks of mental and physical illness, social isolation may increase vulnerability leading to elder abuse and the development of addictions.[vii]

According to a 2004 BC Ministry of Health report, seniors isolation also has a major impact on the continuing care sector as loneliness and social isolation are major predictors of seniors utilizing home care services and entering long term care.[viii]  As noted in the Ministry report, one study finds individuals with a household change that resulted in living alone had over three times the odds of entering home care.[ix]

While seniors isolation may be more prevalent for those living at home, it is also an issue in long term care. For example, a 2017 survey from the BC Office of the Seniors Advocate (OSA) notes 46% of residents reported that there is no one there they consider a close friend and for 45% there is no one for them to do things with.[x] More recently the OSA’s 2018 Quick Facts Directory highlights that almost half of all residents had a low sense of social engagement.[xi]

Given the physical and mental challenges faced with seniors isolation, the BC Care Providers Association (BCCPA) has attempted to address this issue, as outlined in a 2017 BCCPA report, by advocating for the creation of a Seniors Quality of Life Fund to increase access to social and adult day programs for seniors in long term care and in the community.[xii] Likewise, in December 2017 the BCCPA launched a media campaign with ads broadcasted on major BC radio stations to give seniors the “gift of time” during the holiday season particularly reminding people to take time out of their busy holiday schedules to visit seniors in their homes.[xiii]

In partnership with the BC Lower Mainland Chapter of the Canadian College of Health Leaders (CCHL), the BCCPA will also be hosting its third and final Care to Chat for the 2017/18 season on March 2, 2018 on this very important topic.[xiv] Along with veteran journalist Charmaine de Silva (980 CKNW) it will include various experts in the field of seniors isolation such as Dr. Andrew Wister, Chair of the National Seniors Council, which released a ground breaking Canadian report in 2014 on this same issue 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.[xv]

Along with discussing the challenges of seniors isolation, this Care to Chat, will highlight ways to address this important issue within the sector.[xvi] This could include, for example, ways to encourage greater community participation such as volunteering and classes to provide education as well as physical or recreational 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.

The Care to Chat could also discuss further some of the more local programs that have been undertaken to deal with this important issue. For example, as part of the Seniors’ Peer Outreach Program funded through the federal government’s New Horizon’s for Seniors Program, one BCCPA care home in Langley launched an innovative program in 2017 targeting isolated seniors and at-risk seniors in the community by offering various services including nutritious meals, social activities and telephone calls. According to those involved with the program, including volunteers many of whom are retired professionals, it has seen positive outcomes as the program enables new connections to be established especially for recent widows or those that have recently completed a health treatment.

Other innovative approaches that may be discussed is the UK’s decision in January 2018 to appoint a minister for loneliness. This new office, will now help spearhead a number of initiatives including developing an overall strategy on how to address loneliness in England.[xvii] While a whole Ministry may not be necessary for BC it is important to note that even smaller initiatives such as the BCCPA’s gift of time campaign can make a big difference. For example, a recent study notes that just increasing the amount of social interaction for people with dementia living in care homes to one hour a week dramatically improves quality of life when combined with more personalized care.[xviii]

The BCCPA hopes you can attend this important Care to Chat on March 2nd at the Vancouver Terminal City Club to bring greater attention to this issue as well as explore potential solutions to improve seniors quality of life as well as providing seniors with the most important gift of all – the gift of time.

END NOTES

[i] BCCPA. Opinion Piece: Lonely Seniors Suffer in Silence. December 2014. Accessed at: https://bccare.ca/2014/12/opinion-piece-lonely-seniors-suffer-silence/

[ii] Canadian Community Health Survey – Healthy Aging (CCHS). May 2010. Accessed at:

http://www23.statcan.gc.ca/imdb/p2SV.pl?Function=getSurvey&SDDS=5146

[iii] Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Andrew Steptoe et al. February 15, 2013. Accessed at:  http://www.pnas.org/content/110/15/5797.full

[iv] Holt-Lundstedt, 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

[v] 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

[vi] 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

[vii] 20 Facts About Senior Isolation That Will Stun You. Accessed at:

https://www.aplaceformom.com/blog/10-17-14-facts-about-senior-isolation/

[viii] 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

[ix] Wilkins, K & Beaudet, P. (2000) Changes in social support in relation to seniors’ use of home care. Health Reports: Statistics Canada. Spring: Vol.11 (4).

[x] BC Office of the Seniors Advocate. Every Voice Counts: Provincial Residential Care Survey Results. September 15, 2017. Accessed at https://www.seniorsadvocatebc.ca/osa-reports/residential-care-survey/.

[xi] BC Office of the Seniors Advocate. British Columbia Residential Care Facilities Quick Facts Directory Summary. 2018. Accessed at: www.seniorsadvocatebc.ca/app/uploads/sites/4/2018/01/QuickFacts2018-Summary.pdf. As outlined in the Directory the Index of Social Engagement (ISE) is a measure of a resident’s social engagement or involvement.

[xii] BCCPA. Strengthening Seniors Care: Supporting Paper. January 2017. Accessed at: https://bccare.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/BCCPA_Roadmap_Full_Jan2017.pdf

[xiii] BCCPA. Give a senior in care the “Gift of Time” to show your holiday spirit #giftoftime. December 1, 2017. Accessed at https://bccare.ca/2017/12/gift-of-time/

[xiv] BCCPA. Care to Chat: tie-breaker vote needed! December 13, 2017. Accessed at: https://bccare.ca/2017/12/care-chat-tie-breaker-vote-needed/

[xv] National Seniors Council exploring adverse effects of social isolation. March 3, 2014. Accessed at: http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?crtr.sj1D=&crtr.mnthndVl=3&mthd=advSrch&crtr.dpt1D=&nid=820699&crtr.lc1D=&crtr.tp1D=&crtr.yrStrtVl=2008&crtr.kw=social+isolation&crtr.dyStrtVl=26&crtr.aud1D=&crtr.mnthStrtVl=2&crtr.page=1&crtr.yrndVl=2014&crtr.dyndVl=6

[xvi] BCCPA. Panelists & moderator announced for #CaretoChat on social isolation. January 25, 2018. Accessed at: https://bccare.ca/2018/01/panelists-moderator-announced-caretochat-seniors-isolation/

[xvii] Forbes. UK Has A Minister of Loneliness: This Is How Bad Loneliness Has Gotten. January 21, 2018. Accessed at:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2018/01/21/uk-has-a-minister-of-loneliness-this-is-how-bad-loneliness-has-gotten/2/#5069eb0058c6

[xviii] Medical Xpress. Dementia care improved by just one hour of social interaction each week. February 6, 2018. Accessed at: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-02-dementia-hour-social-interaction-week.html

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