Loneliness among older people is a global threat. This advocate is pushing for a local solution

A woman wearing a gray jacket sits at a table in a conference room.
With one of the fastest expanding senior populations in the country, seniors advocate Susan Walsh says structural change is needed to address loneliness in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Lending a helping hand and taking care of each other, even in the most difficult times.

These traits are woven into the collective fabric of Newfoundland and Labrador, says Susan Walsh, an advocate for seniors in the province.

With one of the fastest growing populations of seniors in the country, this kind of spirit needs to be revitalized to help address a problem facing many seniors: loneliness.

But she says it goes beyond the individual: serious structural change is also needed.

“We definitely need to be leaders in targeting these issues,” Walsh said.

Newfoundland and Labrador leads the country on a per capita basis when it comes to the number of people aged 65 and older, according to Statistics Canada, with nearly half of the province’s population aged 50 and older.

Walsh says research from the National Institute on Aging released last December found that 58 per cent of seniors experienced loneliness, but 41 per cent of Canadians over 50 are at risk of loneliness.

In November, the World Health Organization classified it as a global public health concern.

It’s a complex issue, and it hasn’t always been top of mind, but the Office of Senior Advocacy is researching it, Walsh says.

For example, what the office found is that loneliness and isolation don’t always go hand in hand. She says loneliness is a problem for many people living in care homes, and some research suggests that older people feel less lonely when they live in their own homes.

What the office also found is that poverty is part of the problem of loneliness.

Loneliness and poverty

Walsh released a report in November titled “What Are the Golden Years?”, which includes the perspectives of more than 1,000 seniors in the county. About a third of these elderly people said they could not make ends meet.

Of this 32 per cent, 60 per cent of these seniors said they could not attend social events, she says. It was the top-rated item that seniors in that subgroup said they would do without, even compared to things like medical supplies and special dietary requirements, Walsh said.

“A lot of people see that as a nice thing or an extra thing,” she said. “not.”

listen | The Signal’s Adam Walsh asks seniors advocate Susan Walsh what needs to be done to address loneliness in the province:

Signal50:18Seniors Advocate Susan Walsh

Today show host Adam Walsh talks with the county’s seniors’ advocate about the systemic changes needed to help seniors facing isolation and loneliness. He also talks with Susan Walsh about her commission, the work she does, and misconceptions about the gig.

Seniors living in poverty often have to make decisions, for example, between whether to pay for home care assistance or food, Walsh said. What happens is that they become more isolated and withdraw into themselves, relying only on themselves.

What also happens is that because some seniors can no longer afford their own homes, they must move into personal care homes or other living arrangements, which may take them away from their community and social relationships.

“They built this county, and they had families that helped keep the population going,” Walsh said. “And here we are today, just above the poverty line. It’s very sad. It’s ridiculous, actually.”

Structural solutions

To address loneliness, Walsh says there needs to be more public education about the issue. She says the Seniors’ Advocacy Office is working with the Canadian Alliance for Seniors’ Mental Health, which is trying to develop clinical guidelines surrounding how to assess and recognize signs and symptoms of loneliness.

“So we are very close at this national level to setting these guidelines for people,” she said. “This is all very new.”

She says the province must also continue to develop age-friendly communities, places where citizens can thrive and participate regardless of their age.

In 2007, Clarenville participated in a national trial implementing age-friendly communities, she says. The city still holds its own designation, and other communities are working to maintain it as well.

What makes a community “age-friendly” includes things like designing infrastructure like public walkways that are accessible to people who use walkers or wheelchairs, and ensuring seniors are welcome to participate in social events, and work or volunteer opportunities, she says. .

He watches | NL seniors share an intimate look at what it’s like to feel lonely:

These seniors never expected to feel lonely in their sunset years. Now that’s all they know

For seniors whose spouses have died and whose children have moved away, the golden years can leave them feeling empty and lonely. CBC News spoke to seniors experiencing loneliness about how they feel and how difficult it is.

In an emailed statement, Children, Seniors and Social Development Minister Paul Paik Paik said the government was working to create more age-friendly communities.

He also said the government would release a “tailored plan focused on the needs of older people” in the “near future”, which would complement the recommendations in the Health Compact and the Advocates for Older People report.

Although the county presents challenges in terms of its geography and sparse rural population, Walsh says transportation is also key to addressing loneliness.

The provincial government and the city of St. John’s have offered free bus tickets to low-income seniors, but Walsh says it would be beneficial for Metrobus to offer its services for free to all seniors, Pike said in an email statement.

“If there are things that you can participate in, if you can’t get out and do them, then by that, you’re really isolated,” Walsh said.

“As you know, isolation can lead to loneliness.”

Areas not served by Metrobus must apply for grants, such as the provincial government’s Senior Friendly Community Transportation Program, which provides a grant to communities that can use the funds to purchase transportation such as a bus or minivan.

The community will need a community organization and volunteers to drive the transportation vehicle, among other requirements. Walsh says she wants the provincial government to devote more resources to the program and for more communities to commit to becoming senior-friendly.

Although research on loneliness is relatively new, there are solutions — but it’s a joint effort, which Walsh says requires structural change, collective will, and a revitalization of Newfoundland and Labrador’s spirit of friendliness.

“We’re used to hard times, so we take care of each other, we help each other out. And I think that’s unfortunately changing a little bit, but we need to get back to it,” she said.

“It’s not just about local government, provincial government or federal government. We all have a role.”

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