Loneliness has been getting a lot of love lately – that is, in terms of attention.
In January, Britain tasked the minister of sport and civil society with developing a strategy on loneliness. The initiative is meant to honour and continue the work of MP Jo Cox whom, in 2016, was murdered by a right-wing extremist. Loneliness had been a cause for which Cox had campaigned.
But is loneliness worth action from our top levels of government?
Well, social isolation increases one’s risk of death by 26 per cent, determined Brigham Young University researchers in 2015. As bad for our health as smoking and obesity.
Social isolation has been shown to be a health factor even when it comes to the common cold. Among participants in a 2017 Rice University study, those who reported feelings of loneliness also reported worse symptoms when sick.
As part of the 2008/09 Healthy Aging survey, Statistics Canada reported that 1.4 million seniors – 25 per cent men and 40 per cent women – reported having feelings of loneliness “often” or “some of the time.” And the survey didn’t include residents of the territories, First Nations reserves, certain remote regions, institutions and Canadian Forces bases, and full-time members of the Canadian Forces. But, as it stands, that’s more than four per cent of the population at the time.
For seniors, the CBC reports that a move or the death of a spouse can be a trigger of isolation – as can a dementia diagnosis. In the U.K., the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness found that 38 per cent of people with dementia lose friends after diagnosis. In an interview with CBC’s The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn, gerontologist Mariam Larson puts isolation in simple terms. “Do you have someone you can ask for help? Do you have someone who listens to you? Do you have someone who will take you places or help you with things? “
Larsen is a co-ordinator with Allies in Aging, a federally funded initiative to reduce isolation among seniors. As for what we can do, her advice: persist.
“First, just ask. Ask ‘How are you? I see you’ve been spending a lot of time at home, and there’s this show i think you might be interested in.’ Or, ‘There’s this movie I wanted to see. I’d love to have your company.’ … I encourage people to not ask just once. And not just twice. But go back again and say ‘Hey, I know you couldn’t do it a week ago. How about next week?’”