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Social Isolation: Are You at Risk?

Discover the risk factors. Learn how social
isolation impacts health and well-being,
and practical ways to reduce your risk.

 

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Lesson Outline

In 2017, Statistics Canada reported that 1 in 5 older adults are lonely, felt they lack company, felt abandoned or isolated.

By taking this short, interactive lesson, you will learn the answers to the following questions:

  • What are the risk factors for social isolation?
  • Are there specific groups of people who are at greater risk?
  • What role does a person's mobility play?
  • What physical and social activities should you be doing?
  • How can technology be used to expand your social network?
  • How do age-related conditions such as hearing loss, loss of speech, fear of falling, and incontinence impact a person's ability to participate in social activities?

Meet Zara, discover her risk factors, and learn what changes they made to reduce their risk of social isolation.

(Estimated time to complete - 20 minutes)

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Experiencing social isolation

For older adults, social isolation can result from a significant event, such as the loss of a loved one or retirement, or a combination of several smaller events. In general, the more risk factors a person has, the greater likelihood that they’ll experience social isolation. However, the presence of risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean a person will experience social isolation. Whether a person experiences it or not, or to what degree it’s experienced, depends on their coping skills and the support available from family, friends, and the community.

 

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Risk factors

The risk factors for social isolation are many and varied. They include:

  • living alone
  • being age 80 or older
  • having multiple chronic health conditions that may impact your mobility, such as diabetes, dementia or osteoarthritis
  • size of your 'social network'
  • frequency of contact with the members of your social network
  • living with low income
  • challenges in using technology
  • where you live
  • lack of access to transportation
  • changes in family structures, such as younger people moving for work and leaving older adults behind
  • critical life changes such as retirement, death of a spouse or losing a driver's license, and
  • age-related disorders such as hearing loss, loss of speech, fear of falling and incontinence.

Groups at increased risk

There are also specific groups of older adults who are at greater risk of social isolation, including:

  • caregivers
  • Indigenous peoples
  • newcomers to Canada, and
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

What can you do?

Fortunately, there are many proactive steps that you can take to reduce the risk of social isolation, including:

  • managing chronic conditions and promoting brain health to optimize your function and mobility
  • regularly engaging in both physical and social activities
  • using technology to expand your social network and to increase the frequency of contact (especially between different generations)
  • being open to alternate transportation options
  • volunteering, and
  • addressing age-related health conditions.

Learn more by taking our 20-minute, interactive lesson.

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DISCLAIMER: Many of our Blog Posts and e-learning lessons were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content identifies activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations, such as social distancing and frequent hand washing. Some of the activities suggested in our Blog Posts and e-learning lessons may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with the current social distancing recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

Authors

Anthony Levinson

Anthony J. Levinson, MD, MSc, FRCPC

Neuropsychiatrist, Associate Professor; Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University

Richard Sztramko

Richard Sztramko, MD, FRCPC

Geriatrician, Assistant Professor; Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University

About this project

The content of this resource was adapted from various McMaster Optimal Aging Portal Blog Posts on social isolation and the 2016 Government of Canada report Social isolation of seniors - Volume 1: Understanding the issue and finding solutions. A literature search was performed to assess for new research evidence on the subject. The content of the e-learning lesson was reviewed for accuracy by our experts in geriatrics and the following researchers from the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging (MIRA): Nicole Dalmer, Meridith Griffin, Stephanie Hatzifilalithis, and Victor Kuperman. A panel of selected members of our target audience reviewed the lesson and provided feedback on the content and their experience. This resource was first published on August 24, 2021.

If you have any questions or comments related to this resource please contact us at info@mcmasteroptimalaging.ca.

References

  1. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Tackling a silent beast: Strategies for reducing loneliness and social isolation. (2019 Feb 6). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2019/02/06/tackling-a-silent-beast-strategies-for-reducing-loneliness-and-social-isolation
  2. Government of Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada. (2016). Social isolation of seniors - Volume 1: Understanding the issue and finding solutions. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/corporate/partners/seniors-forum/social-isolation-toolkit-vol1.html
  3. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLos Med. 2010 Jul;7(7):e1000316. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
  4. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Boost your social life through physical activity. (2021 Jun 16) Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2021/06/16/boost-your-social-life-through-physical-activity.
  5. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Reading to escape isolation. (2020 Mar 25). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2020/03/25/reading-to-escape-isolation
  6. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. More connected than ever! (2018 Feb 12). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2018/02/12/more-connected-than-ever
  7. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Information and communication technology is a promising way to reduce social isolation of older adults. (n.d.) Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/full-article/es/information-communication-technology-promising-reduce-social-isolation-older
  8. Weldrick R, Grenier A. Social isolation in later life: Extending the conversation. Can J Aging. 2018;37(1):76-83. doi:10.1017/S071498081700054X
  9. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Alternatives to the car. (2020 Aug 26). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from:https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2020/08/26/alternatives-to-the-car
  10. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Improve your safety and performance behind the wheel. (2020 Nov 4). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from:https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2020/11/04/improve-your-safety-and-performance-behind-the-wheel
  11. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Speech and hearing: Our communication gateway. (2021 May 26). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/hitting-the-headlines/2021/05/26/speech-and-hearing-our-communication-gateway
  12. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Civic engagement and participation can benefit older adults. (2019 Aug 27). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/hitting-the-headlines/2019/08/27/civic-engagement-can-help-you-stay-healthy-meet-people-and-share-your-knowledge
  13. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Addressing the social needs of older adults: A contributing factor to their health and well-being. (2018 Dec 5). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2018/12/05/addressing-the-social-needs-of-older-adults-a-contributing-factor-to-their-health-and-well-being
  14. Kim SY, Lim J-S, Kong IG, Choi HG. Hearing impairment and the risk of neurodegenerative dementia: A longitudinal follow-up study using a national sample cohort. Sci Rep. 2018;8(1):15266. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-33325-x
  15. Gurgel RK, Ward PD, Schwartz S, Norton MC, Foster NL, Tschanz JT. Relationship of hearing loss and dementia: a prospective, population-based study. Otol Neurotol. 2014;35(5):775-781. doi:10.1097/MAO.0000000000000313
  16. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Regaining language skills after a stroke: Will speech therapy help? (2017 Jun 26). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2017/06/26/regaining-language-skills-after-a-stroke-will-speech-therapy-help
  17. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Conquer your fear of falling with cognitive behavioural therapy. (2018 Nov 27). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2018/11/27/conquer-your-fear-of-falling-with-cognitive-behavioural-therapy
  18. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. If I laugh too hard, I’ll pee my pants! Social isolation and urinary incontinence: there are many effective treatments. (2014 Mar 8). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2014/03/08/if-i-laugh-too-hard-ill-pee-my-pants-the-problem-of-incontinence-and-social-isolation-
  19. McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. Urinary incontinence in aging females: When can medications help? (2014 Jul 21). Accessed July 6, 2021. Available from: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/blog/detail/blog/2014/07/21/urinary-incontinence-in-aging-females-when-can-medications-help
  20. Wilson DM, Harris A, Hollis V, Mohankumar D. Upstream thinking and health promotion planning for older adults at risk of social isolation. Int J Older People Nurs. 2011;6(4):282-288. doi:10.1111/j.1748-3743.2010.00259.x
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