The US Surgeon General made public health headlines in May, declaring that loneliness and social isolation carry the same critical health risks as smoking, obesity, and the opioid crisis. Isolation and loneliness are linked to declining mental health, such as higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Physical health is affected to, with a 50% increased risk of developing dementia, a 59% increased risk of functional decline, and a 45% increased risk of death. Of course, all of these are in addition to an increased risk of stroke, coronary heart disease and cancer.
If you want a primer on this topic, visit my blog post called Loneliness And Social Isolation Declared a Public Health Crisis.
Statistics and Risk Factors
Many countries, including Canada, have been studying loneliness and social isolation for some time, yet few comprehensive action strategies are in place. It’s estimated that 30% of older Canadians over 65 years are at risk of becoming socially isolated. The impact of the recent COVID pandemic only intensified the lack of social connectedness among people in our communities, especially older people at risk.
A combination of risk factors can often tip the balance into isolation. For example,
- Living alone with multiple chronic health problems that affect health and well-being.
- Being a caregiver of a partner with multiple health conditions, with little support or access to services and programs.
- Pivotal life transitions such as retirement, death of a spouse/partner, or losing a driver’s license.
- Having no children or no contact with family or supportive friends.
- Living in a location with little access to transportation and being unable to drive, and
- Lack of financial resources.
What are the solutions that can address this crisis?
Educate Yourself and Your Clients
Solutions start with the education – of both clients and professionals. Planning for empowered and healthy ageing is a holistic matter. From my perspective, it includes an integrated and coordinated approach combining health and personal care planning, legal preparedness, and financial preparedness. I wrote this recently for a book chapter on the top practices for wealthy families and their advisors.
“In the same way that your family office manager takes an integrated approach to manage your financial resources, a smart ageing advisor takes an integrated approach to your life, health and well-being.”
Professionals in the field must actively educate their clients about social isolation and loneliness. In assessing their future accommodation needs, people must determine if social isolation and loneliness are key factors affecting their mental and physical health. Many older people are unaware of the risks of isolation and do not plan for the day that they may not have easy access to transportation or may lose their partner, whom they depend upon for caregiving.
Planning Considerations: A Recent Scenario
A 79-year-old woman living near High Park in Toronto recently lost her husband. She was his primary caregiver for the past eight years while he was housebound after a debilitating stroke. They lived in the same house for 35 years, and she loves the neighbourhood where she can walk to her family health clinic, her bank and financial advisor, and most services she needs. She is in good health, walks daily, and has an active circle of friends through her church. Her friends provided respite care every few days while her husband was ill. She is active again with her church friends, participating in various activities like volunteering at a food bank and playing cards every week.
Her planning challenge is that her only child is a daughter who lives in Aurora. She and her husband have two young children and struggle with dual careers, active family needs, and an expensive mortgage. The daughter insists that her mother should sell her house, move to Aurora, and become the caregiver for her two children and that her husband can manage her mom’s assets. Her mother has sought out professional advice on lifestyle choices and next steps.
Planning for Social Connection
From this scenario, you can see that planning is important.
So, when an individual is planning for or faces a lifestyle choice, they must first consider the importance of being socially connected because isolation could impact their mental and physical health. Nurturing relationships and staying socially connected to new and old friends in your community is crucial. At different ages and stages, more senior people must carefully consider decisions that will fulfill their needs and wishes.
Many factors, with broad policy implications, will arise as we aim to solve the loneliness and social isolation crisis. But the problem is happening now, and it can’t wait for a societal change. We can take action, though, by educating ourselves and our clients and emphasizing the primacy of planning.