Health

Loneliness among seniors is a global threat. This advocate is pushing for a local solution

With one of the most rapidly expanding senior populations in the country, seniors’ advocate Susan Walsh says structural change is needed to address loneliness in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Lending a helping hand and looking out for one another, even through the toughest times.

These traits are interwoven in Newfoundland and Labrador’s collective fabric, says the province’s seniors’ advocate, Susan Walsh. 

With one of the most rapidly expanding senior populations in the country, this type of spirit needs to be reinvigorated to help address an issue facing many seniors: loneliness.

But, it goes beyond the individual — serious structural change is also needed, she says.

“We do absolutely need to be leaders in targeting these issues,” said Walsh.

Newfoundland and Labrador leads the country on a per capita basis when it comes to the number of people aged 65 years and older, according to Statistics Canada, with nearly half of the province’s population aged 50 years and older.

Walsh says that research with the National Institute on Aging released last December found that 58 per cent of older adults have experienced loneliness, but 41 per cent of Canadians 50 plus are at risk of it.

In November, the World Health Organization designated it as a global public health concern.

It’s a complex issue, one that hasn’t always been front of mind, but that the seniors’ advocate’s office is researching, says Walsh. 

For instance, something the office has found is that loneliness and isolation don’t always go hand in hand. Loneliness is an issue for many people living in care homes, and some research suggests seniors feel less lonely when they live in their own homes, she says.

What the office also found is that poverty is part of the loneliness problem.

Loneliness and poverty

Walsh released a report in November called “What Golden Years?,” which includes the perspectives of more than 1,000 seniors in the province. About a third of those seniors said they couldn’t afford to meet their needs.

Within that 32 per cent, she says, 60 per cent of those seniors said they cannot attend social events. It was the highest rated item seniors in that subset said they were going without, said Walsh, even compared to things such as medical supplies and special dietary requirements.

“A lot of people see that as a nicety or an extra,” she said. “It is not.”

Listen | The Signal’s Adam Walsh asks seniors’ advocate Susan Walsh what needs to be done to tackle loneliness in the province: 

The Signal50:18Seniors’ Advocate Susan Walsh

On today’s show host Adam Walsh speaks with the province’s seniors’ advocate about systemic changes needed to help seniors facing isolation and loneliness. He also chats with Susan Walsh about her mandate, the work she is doing and misconceptions about the gig.

Seniors living in poverty often have to make decisions, for instance, between whether they will pay for homecare assistance or food, said Walsh. What happens is they become more isolated and turn inward, relying only on themselves.

What also happens is that, since some seniors can no longer afford their houses, they have to move into personal care homes or other living arrangements, which can take them away from their community and social connections.

“They built this province, they had the families who kept the population going,” said Walsh. “And then here we are today, keeping just above the poverty line. It’s so sad. It’s ridiculous, actually.”

Structural solutions

To tackle loneliness, Walsh says there needs to be more public education about the issue. She says the seniors’ advocate’s office is working with the Canadian Coalition for Seniors Mental Health, which is trying to develop clinical guidelines surrounding how to assess and recognize the signs and symptoms of loneliness.

“So we’re getting pretty close at that national level to have those guidelines out there for people,” she said. “This is all very new.”

The province should also continue developing age-friendly communities, she says, places where citizens can thrive and participate no matter their age.

In 2007, she says, Clarenville participated in a national trial to implement age-friendly communities. The town still has its designation, and other communities in the province are working toward it as well. 

What makes a community “age-friendly,” she says, includes things such as designing infrastructure like communal walkways that are accessible to people who use walkers or wheelchairs, and ensuring older citizens are welcome to participate in social events, and work or volunteer opportunities.

WATCH | N.L. seniors share an intimate look into what it’s like being lonely:

These seniors didn’t expect to feel loneliness in their sunset years. Now it’s all they know

For seniors whose spouses have died and children moved away, the golden years can leave them feeling empty and alone. CBC News spoke to seniors struggling with loneliness about what it feels like and how hard it can be.

In an emailed statement, Children, Seniors and Social Development Minister Paul Pike Pike said the government is working to create more age-friendly communities.

He also said the government will release a “dedicated plan focusing on seniors’ needs” in the “near future,” which will complement recommendations from the Health Accord and the seniors’ advocate’s report.

Although the province presents challenges in terms of its geography and sparse rural populations, Walsh says transportation is also key to addressing loneliness. 

Pike said in an emailed statement that the provincial government and the City of St. John’s have provided free bus passes to low-income seniors, but Walsh says it would be beneficial for Metrobus to offer its services for free to all seniors.

“If there are hopefully things for you to participate in, if you can’t get out and do it, then by virtue of that, you’re already isolated,” said Walsh.

“And you know, isolation can lead to loneliness.”

Areas that aren’t serviced by Metrobus should apply for grants, such as the provincial government’s age-friendly community transportation program, which offers a grant to communities who can use the money to buy transportation such as a bus or a minivan.

The community would need to have a community organization and volunteers to drive the transport vehicle, among other requirements. Walsh says she’d like the provincial government to put more resources into the program and for more communities to commit to becoming age-friendly.

Although research about loneliness is relatively new, there are solutions — but it’s a joint effort, one Walsh says requires structural change, collective will, and reinvigorating Newfoundland and Labrador’s amicable spirit.

“We’re used to hard times, so we’ve looked out for each other, we help each other. And I think that’s changing unfortunately a little bit, but we need to get back to it,” she said.

“It’s not just about local government or provincial government or federal government. We all have a role.”

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