The Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Seniors (SILAS) Project—an initiative of the City of Vancouver Seniors’ Advisory Committee was to develop a plan to help reduce, and ideally prevent, chronic social isolation and loneliness among seniors in Vancouver. A secondary purpose was to fulfill a key requirement of the City of Vancouver’s application to the World Health Organization for designation as a Global Age-Friendly City.
Contrary to common belief, isolation and loneliness are not only “seniors’ issues;” they can occur at any point in the life course, given various combinations of biological, psychological, and social risk factors, and can negatively impact health and well-being even at earlier ages. Some risk factors, however, are more common in later life (e.g., widowhood, physical disability). Moreover, the health effects of isolation and loneliness can accumulate over time to hasten the aging process, and are also associated with increased healthcare utilization and healthcare spending by older adults. Isolation and loneliness also have a tendency to spread within social networks. This is why researchers, service providers, and now governments, too, have taken a keen interest in these issues.
Most instances of isolation and loneliness are transient and a normal part of the human condition. In some cases, however, they can evolve into a chronic, self-perpetuating cycle. This is especially the case with chronic loneliness, which can contribute to distorted social perceptions and counterproductive behaviours, including social withdrawal. While the provision of social contact might be helpful to prevent this cycle from occurring in the first place, other approaches may be more appropriate once this cycle has taken root (e.g., cognitive-behavioral interventions).
Given the various emotional, social, and financial costs associated with both chronic isolation and loneliness, it is important that everyone take steps to reduce and, ideally, prevent them—as early in life as possible. To this end, our report offers 23 recommendations addressing six general areas.
The report, along with accompanying materials, can be found at http://www.seniorsloneliness.ca.
Although we are optimistic, we emphasize that there is no easy solution, especially in chronic cases. These are complex issues that present in different ways and have different causes, thus requiring a multidimensional approach tailored to each individual. They also require a good deal of trial and error, as well as patience and realistic expectations for success. We hope the report will provide some useful information and inspire new ideas for tackling these difficult problems.
Eddy Elmer, MA, is a member of the City of Vancouver Seniors’ Advisory Committee and is currently completing his PhD in social gerontology from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. You can reach him at http://www.eddyelmer.com or on Twitter @Eddy_Elmer