Growing old alone

The rise of social isolation as Canada ages

April 23, 2014  |  by Derek Miedema, Researcher, Institute of Marriage and Family Canada

Executive Summary

Academics define social isolation as a reflection of reduced social networks and a lack of social contact. They add that it is a particular problem at older ages.”1

Social isolation among the elderly has real health consequences. Research shows that social isolation is as strong a factor in early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and alcohol consumption.2 It is also a factor in the development of chronic illnesses such as “chronic lung disease, arthritis, impaired mobility, and depressive symptoms.”3

Canada is getting older. Statistics Canada predicts that the number of Canadians over 65 will outnumber those 14 years and younger for the first time in Canadian history somewhere between 2015 and 2021.4

As a result:

  • Decision-makers need to be aware of the physical/health ramifications of social isolation in order to inspire action on the local level to build community
  • Seniors interested in growing old in their own community should investigate the founding of Beacon Hill Village as well as the Village to Village Network, which represent the larger movement across the United States5
  • Teachers might consider pairing their class with pen pals in a local senior’s home
  • Interested community groups can investigate the possibility of starting events or creating volunteer opportunities for seniors. Care should be taken to encourage and foster community between volunteers and attendees, whatever the nature of the event
  • Families can consider their own partnerships with the seniors around them, particularly those who live far away from extended family
Endnotes: 
  1. Steptoe, A., Shankar, A., Demakakos, P., and Wardle, J. (2013). Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. PNAS. Vol. 110, no. 15, p. 5977. Retrieved from http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/03/19/1219686110.full.pdf+html
  2. 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
  3. Steptoe, A., Shankar, A., Demakakos, P., and Wardle, J. (2013). Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women, p. 5797.
  4. Milan, A. (2011). Age and sex structure: Canada and the provinces, 2010. See Share of children decreases. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/91-209-x/2011001/article/11511-eng.htm
  5. Information on Beacon Hill Village can be found at www.beaconhillvillage.org/
  6. The Village to Village Network can be found at http://www.vtvnetwork.org/

Permission is granted to reprint or broadcast this information with appropriate attribution to the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

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