Dr. Paula Rochon and Rachel Savage, PhD

The Power of Connection

Addressing the lack of connection among older adults

Canada will soon become “super-aged”, with more than 20 per cent of our population 65 or older by 2036. Among the challenges facing this age group is loneliness. We are born to build connections – with family, with friends and with our communities. Yet, 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.

While loneliness largely affects aging populations, research shows that it is also a problem across all demographic groups. With the dissolution of traditional family structures and fewer social institutions, we lack connection to our communities. Experts have started to warn of the dangers of loneliness and are calling for action. Research has found that loneliness is as harmful to our health and longevity as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even more dangerous than obesity. Evidence also suggests that chronic loneliness impacts physical health by producing stress hormones that can lead to inflammation and other health conditions, as well as making it less likely that individuals will access healthcare services and engage in healthy lifestyle behaviours. The facts are irrefutable: staying socially connected, involved and engaged has a direct benefit to our health.

Many nations are already discussing how to address this loneliness epidemic and last year, Britain appointed its first minister for loneliness. Canada and other countries including Australia, Germany and New Zealand have shown interest in adopting the same approach to help combat this growing societal issue.

Dr. Paula Rochon, geriatrician and vice-president of research at Women’s College Hospital (WCH), and the aging research team at Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI) are shining a light on loneliness among older adults through their research. By actively raising awareness of the health effects associated with this complex human emotion, the team is working to optimize health and wellness for older adults, specifically women who outlive men.

“Research that explores loneliness and its impact on health has the potential to build better services, enhance neighbourhoods and create stronger societies that reduce feelings of social isolation among older adults. This information will be useful to all of us,” says Dr. Rochon.

As one of the most modifiable risk factors for mortality, loneliness is an important predictor for how long we live. Taking steps towards preventing loneliness can lead to a longer and higher quality of life, but older adults have to feel comfortable enough to come forward.

“It’s important for individuals to know that there are supports available to improve social connection, and that health professionals can have a very impactful role in facilitating access to these supports,” explains Rachel Savage, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at WCRI who is leading the team’s research on loneliness.

Interventions can include social prescribing, where a health care provider makes a referral to local, non-clinical supports in the community such as joining a walking club or visiting the museum. They may also involve clinical supports, including psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy.

Dr. Rochon and her team recognize the opportunity to be part of a larger national conversation around loneliness with the Canadian public. As individuals and as a country, we can all do our part to ensure that no older adult feels alone.