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Lonely Asian senior man sitting on wheelchair.

“Our communities are healthiest when older adults remain engaged”

– Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons)

What is Social Isolation and Loneliness?

When we have low social connectedness, we can experience social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Social isolation and loneliness are different but related. We can be alone, but not feel lonely, and we can feel lonely while being surrounded by people.

The goal of Connection in Action is to reduce social isolation amongst older adults by increasing opportunities to build social connections, which can reduce loneliness and improve a sense of belonging.


Definitions

1. Social isolation

Social isolation is a low quantity and quality of contact with others. Social isolation can be a choice or it can be an unwanted result of many factors.

2. Loneliness

Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome, and painful feeling that is difficult to tolerate. It can happen when we are not satisfied with the quality of our social connections.

It is important to note that loneliness is not a personal failing. Loneliness is experienced by everyone from time to time, regardless of age.

Loneliness may or may not lead to social isolation, and social isolation may or may not lead to loneliness.

Social isolation happens when we have a low number of social contacts and when we do not interact with others enough. Some older adults may choose to have a small number of contacts. For some older adults, being alone may not be a choice.

Happy Asian senior man wearing eyeglasses sitting on the lawn under the tree and reading a book in public park
Woman sitting Alone in a crowd

Types of Loneliness

Temporary or situational loneliness

Loneliness in older adults may be experienced over a short-time as a result of a life transition like retirement, moving, coping with a death, a sudden change or decline in physical health, etc. Situational loneliness may also be experienced annually on a significant date or holiday.

When we have quality social connections, our experiences of loneliness as a result of life transitions are likely to be short-term. This is because having quality social connections helps us feel less alone about stressful situations. We also receive information from social connections. This means that our social contacts may have information and knowledge of resources that can help reduce the impact of the stressful situation.

Without social connections, short-term loneliness can lead to long-term or chronic loneliness.

Long-term or chronic loneliness

Loneliness can be experienced over a long period of time. Chronic loneliness can be the result of unaddressed short- term loneliness. It can also be the result of physical, mental, emotional, medical, social, and environmental barriers. Ongoing loneliness can worsen our self-esteem.

When we don’t connect with others in meaningful ways, it becomes harder for us to build new social connections. But it’s not impossible. Addressing long-term loneliness might require a bit of effort. It may involve a holistic approach that includes working on our social skills, for example.


Health Impacts and Outcomes

There can be serious health consequences of social isolation and loneliness. Older adults who experience social isolation and loneliness are more likely to be admitted to the emergency room or to long-term care (Source: National Institute on Ageing).

Those who care for older adults may also be an older adult themselves. Caregivers are also at-risk of experiencing social isolation and loneliness as a result of caring for someone with complex needs.

Social isolation and loneliness are associated with higher risks of the following:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Weakened immune function
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Cognitive decline
  • Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease
  • Death
  • Motor decline
  • Lack of mobility
  • Cardiovascular decline
  • Hopelessness
  • Impaired hearing

Signs and Symptoms

Introducing social connections as protective factors and as early interventions are essential for positive and long-term health and well-being outcomes. It is important to know that anytime is a good time to increase social connections. It is never too late to reach out for support.

Knowing how to recognize the signs of isolation and loneliness in yourself or someone you know is an important step towards limiting the negative impacts. Recognizing the signs may not always be easy. Sometimes signs can be subtle and mistaken for something else, like being an introvert or wanting to maintain strict social distancing measures. Other times signs can be overlooked, like when an older adult has social contacts but is experiencing loneliness.

Signs and symptoms can look different for each person. Here are some key signs and symptoms to look for.

Find out if you are at risk
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Category Signs and Symptoms Possible steps to take
Physical Health
  • Changes in physical appearance like bruising, weight loss, and weakness (results of declining health or signs of elder abuse)
  • Changes in eating and nutritional status
  • Changes in personal hygiene or self-image
  • Increased alcohol consumption or smoking
  • Decrease in physical exercise
  • Schedule a medical appointment
  • Call Health Connect Ontario (formerly Telehealth) 811 or TTY 1 (866) 797-0007
  • Contact Home and Community Care Support Services (formerly LHIN and CCAC) 1 (877) 336-9090 or TTY 711
Mental Health
  • Restless sleep Fear or confusion
  • General lack of interest and acting withdrawn
  • Behaviour or personality changes
  • Changes to living condition (for example: home in disrepair, clutter, and hoarding)
  • Feels threatened or mistrustful of others
  • Verbalizing feelings of loneliness
  • Schedule a medical appointment
  • Meet with a mental health therapist
  • Listen to an older adult if they express feeling lonely
  • Call a crisis or distress hotline
  • Learn about in-home services
Personal
  • Changes in routine
  • Increased amount of time spent at home without company
  • Increased spending
  • Changes in frequency of calls and communication (either increased or decreased)
  • Asking about family and friends they haven’t seen in a long time
  • Not meaningfully engaged in activities
  • Feels a lack of purpose
  • Volunteer
  • Join local groups, seniors centers
  • Join a local library and participate in events and activities
  • Participate in cultural groups and events
  • Participate in faith-based groups
  • Participate in programs like friendly visiting and telephone check-ins
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