Loneliness is individual, complicated and situational—and can affect people of all ages
Social isolation—being alone—was a devastating factor during the COVID-19 pandemic in long-term care homes, contributing to feelings of loneliness and negative impacts on both the physical and mental health of residents.
“Residents in long-term care with dementia faced extreme social isolation,” says Hannah O’Rourke, PhD, RN, and assistant professor in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Alberta. “Especially when families couldn’t visit.” But, O’Rourke continues, “loneliness is not about age—it’s about the situations we find ourselves in.”
“Many of us are concerned about widespread social isolation and loneliness because of the potent negative impact that these factors have on our well-being,” O’Rourke says. Human connections are so important, “but it’s more than just visiting or doing a group activity. In fact, purposeful solitary activity can also be important to prevent loneliness. Especially for those living with dementia—the group I focus most on in my work. We need to think carefully about how to promote meaningful engagement and interaction. If conversation is difficult, then we need to consider other strategies, like using photos or music. For them, it’s not about remembering, it is about the experience and the human connection.”
An assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s College of Health Sciences, Stephanie Chamberlain, PhD, agrees that loneliness is individual, complicated, and situational. “We see a pattern in older adults who are likely lonely,” says Chamberlain. “They experience emergency department visits, often more than someone who isn’t lonely because they don’t have a support system in place, like family or friends to monitor their health and well-being and to assist in accessing preventative care and services. It’s hard on older adults and our health care system.” Chamberlain says that research in the United States points to physiological effects to the body and brain because of loneliness. “We’re not doing a good job of supporting informal caregivers or providing individualized and accessible community supports,” says Chamberlain. “The quality and depth of our social interactions can often determine whether someone is lonely or not and for how long. Loneliness does put your health at risk, but it’s something we can try to address.”
Sometimes, all it takes is a friendly voice to combat loneliness. Launched in 2018, A Friendly Voice is just that for seniors. “The service is modelled on The Silver Line in the UK,” says France Connor, program manager of A Friendly Voice, by Rural Ottawa South Support Services. “We thought the idea of a phone service for seniors was a good idea and applied for a three-year grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to provide the service across Ontario in three phases.”
On target to receive more than 20,000 calls this year, A Friendly Voice has just expanded to the Atlantic provinces and the next step is to be available across Canada. The service is available from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. 365 days a year, and anyone over the age of 55 years may call. “Seniors are our main audience,” says Connor. “And people call for a variety of reasons—they may have mobility issues and can’t get out, or only have a few friends in their community or they don’t have the means for a computer or the internet—but they have a phone.” Connor says they get a surprising number of calls from the Toronto area. “There is a perception that a bigger city provides more services and has more programs available. But it doesn’t mean they are accessed by the people who need them. Sometimes it’s because they don’t know their neighbour or anyone in the city. Or they do have friends, but still feel isolated and lonely,” says Connor. “We’re here to lend a friendly ear and just let you feel heard. We can talk about your aches and pains, or about hobbies and interests. We build connection and friendships.” Connor says that they can also help people find resources in their communities so seniors can safely remain in their own homes for as long as possible. She says that some people who call just want to know that someone is there. “During the first month of COVID, we had over a 250 percent increase in calls, and many were from nurses, social workers and caregivers looking for resources for their clients during a very isolating time,” says Connor. “It made us recognize how important the line has become in such a short period of time, and how it’s a lifeline for so many seniors in need.”
Even young people can be lonely. “It’s not just about being around people,” says Diana Martin, senior director of counselling, Kids Help Phone.
“You can be in a crowd of friends and still feel lonely. But we also tell young people that it’s not necessarily weird to feel lonely around other people. There’s a difference between being lonely and being alone.” Kids Help Phone talks many young people through being lonely. They also provide a texting service for young people and adults. “We support young people between the age of five through 29,” says Martin. “And just connecting can really help. We get that it’s hard to say, ‘I’m lonely,” so we ask them what they’ve already tried and talk through some of their feelings.” She says they also ask about how they comfort themselves when they are alone and to practice self-care. “We don’t tell them ‘do this or do that’,” says Martin. “We really talk about what is right for them and may even suggest that they reach out to other young people with a shared hobby or interest. It can be difficult sometimes to figure out what will make it feel better. But just having that human connection can really help.”
If you feel lonely, these organizations can help:
CARP promotes and protects the interests, rights, and quality of life of Canadians as we age.
Ottawa Chapter: carp.ca/community/ottawa/