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Figuring Out Social IsolationFiguring Out Social Isolation

Figuring Out Social Isolation

Twenty-three per cent of Canadians suffer from extreme social isolation and loneliness, according to a recent Angus Reid Institute survey in partnership with Cardus. Convivium sits down with executive director Ray Pennings to discuss this and other results from the survey.

9 minute read

Convivium: The main findings come as no surprise to Cardus, but I assume will come as a surprise to an awful lot of people – the role that faith and active participation in religious communities have in combating both social isolation and loneliness. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? What did the findings mean to you?

Ray Pennings: I think the interesting thing was we had decided on social isolation as a big question and designed this survey to do a bit of a landscape analysis and a benchmarking. So, we did not specifically set out to look up a role of any one institution. 

What is interesting is, when the results came back, we looked at standard socioeconomic income, education, ethnic identity, family, religion. And what was remarkable is how faith and family are institutions that make such a significant difference in our social connectedness. To state it positively, as opposed to the lack thereof, they contribute so strongly to social isolation and loneliness. In many ways, the data is a reinforcement of the basic Cardus argument of the importance of social institutions, not just government in our lives.

And I guess it does underscore the message that you took to the English Speaking Catholic Council in Montreal last October and have been spreading far and wide since then about the challenge that faith institutions represent to the secular narrative of faith disappearing. Faith institutions turn out to be centres of belonging, community connectedness, and an abatement of loneliness according to this data. 

RP: Absolutely. What’s interesting is when you measure loneliness. We could have asked about going to a sport's game; what we did ask about was going to art galleries and live concerts. By definition, anytime you connect with other people you are lessening isolation and you have more connections. But it isn't just the “connecting.” Participating in a religious community has a different impact than going to the art gallery or a live sporting or concert. And the reason is there is a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and meaning beyond just entertainment.

We don't make connections for the sake of making connections. We make connections as people because we have a deeper need. I would argue we make connections because who we were created as an image of God. God is a relational being; he's a Triune God, Father, Son , Holy Spirit. We have a need for connection and communication. It's a basic human need. 

And I think what this speaks to is a bit of the promises of human autonomy. Somehow, we have sent a message that you need to focus on getting out of life what you can and it's an “I” approach to life. Go be everything you can be, fulfill yourself and you can be happy. Well, when you look at life only through “I”, you come to the point in life where you have needs. And two of them were identified here.

What happens if you're in a financial crisis? One-third of Canadians cannot name anyone that they could turn to for help if they had a financial crisis. Eighteen per cent – almost one out of five – do not have somebody who they can turn to if they had a sudden personal crisis. Well, what's the answer to that then? Payday loans, opioids, suicides. You can't disconnect these things. I would argue that the findings of faith and family being positive shows that when we have a we approach to life as opposed to an “I” approach to life, then lo and behold; there are people around who have the relations and the connections to help us through. And that actually we end up happier when we live life as a “we” as opposed to an “I.”

There’s obviously a wealth of numbers and data points in the findings, but one of them that I was shocked at was the perilous state of women under 35. There's a loneliness and a lack of social connection they are experiencing. And when you think about it, that's the age at which many women are in the prime of family life. They are either just beginning new families or their kids are starting to really grow beyond childhood. They should be surrounded by people that love them and that radiate love towards them. Loneliness should not be an issue. But Millennials are not even living together anymore. It's quite a shocking number, isn't it?

RP: It is. And I wonder about the expectations in terms of success that often get tied up to employment, income, various external markers of status in life. That's equally true for women and men, I do think, especially since we are talking about connectedness. Young women especially look for an intimacy and connectedness that is part of who they are by nature. And as you say, this was a time where, historically in life, that was achieved for many through marriage and family. Those institutions are declining, and that decline is hurting women even more than it is hurting men.

Another number I found quite staggering was the percentage of Canadians in one-person households. Angus Reid quotes Statistics Canada estimates that 26 per cent of Canadians over 65 live alone. You can think that might have to do with mortality rates – if we're living longer, at some point we're going to be left alone. But over the last three generations, the number has grown from seven per cent in 1951 to 28 per cent in 2016. So well over one-quarter of Canadians are living in one-person households. That’s a shocking number. 

RP: Certainly, the 55+ crowd is disproportionately affected. Some of that is structural, living longer, those sorts of things. I also think the fact that we live in a mobile society in which the extended family is likely no longer in the same locality at the convenience of in-law suites or some of the other arrangements, both because of families not being as stable, but also because of mobility in this day and age. I think those are some of the factors. What struck me is some of the isolation and connectedness you can fix. There are structural responses to some of those. The loneliness, whether you're living alone or whether you're living with others, it struck me that there are lonely people who are making six figure salaries.

In every one of the five categories, you had the complete socioeconomic range as well in terms of loneliness. What strikes me is it’s as much a search for meaning and a search for connectedness. It can't be remedied by simply getting out more. There are a lot of lonely people who live with others, who work with others, who see a lot of other people, but are unable to build the meaningful connections and relationships that provide value. So, there's two sides to it. Yes, living alone is a stark change, but what strikes me is that the loneliness is perhaps even a sadder story when all things are considered.

That's borne out in that 41 per cent often feel they often don't even have anyone to talk to. What a stark number. Forty-one per cent.

RP: Yet almost everybody was looking for an increase in terms of connectedness with family and all the rest. Our smartphones can buy us thousands of Facebook friends, but it can't buy a single friendship.

I did wonder about the way some of the categories are framed. There was an emphasis on connection with neighbors and community level involvement. But the question that arose for me is, who is my neighbour? 

My neighbour might be someone very different who neighbour were 20 or 25 years ago. Someone that you consider a neighbour today might be on the other side of town or might even be in another town because we have so much mobility. I wonder about my next-door neighbour versus someone I actually consider a neighbour who lives two subdivisions away from me. Do you think that's something we need to factor in, or is it really a matter of importance that we talk to the person who lives two doors down from us?

RP: When I was a kid, we had the police come in with the Neighbourhood Watch program and there was a sign in the window. You knew you could go to that household because it was someone you could trust. There are certain things you can't replace from geographic proximity. If I need help and I need it now, it's my next-door neighbour who is geographic approximate, who may notice my need or be able to hear my call for help, where best friends being three blocks away can't. We didn't measure directly per trust. But if you correlate this to the annual Survey of Trust in Canada – I think it was two years ago – Canada crossed the 50 per cent barrier in a negative way to where we are now: more distrusting than trusting as a society. I think connectedness to neighbors corresponds to trust in terms of, for most of us, the person we used to describe as a neighbor today is a stranger.

We can speculate on why that might be. We were just talking about the increasing prevalence of one-person households, but we could also talk about the ubiquity of empty houses from 7:30 in the morning until at least 5:30 at night.

RP: We drive out at 7:30 and we return at 5:30 with our remote or our garage door opener. We may wave at the neighbour as we would a stranger, but we don't interact. We shut the garage door, we go into the house, we leave, we don't actually engage. Some of it's structural – the nature of houses, the absence of big porches in which you can have conversations in the evening and those sorts of things. But a lot of it is the priorities that we have put on the importance of connectedness and caring for others.

If I view life entirely through “I” lens, then I'm only going to pursue the things that are interesting for me. At some point, I’m going to want other people to pay attention to, and the survey says, we want our family, we want all our other people to respond and provide connections for us. But they're not available because they, too, have been told to chase the “I” life and life is, we're social creatures. We need to live together and we're not necessarily figuring that out very well.

Right. With this data in hand, what does Cardus do next in terms of turning this into beginnings of formations of policy, advocacy, whatever we might want to call it? When the structures themselves are so antithetical to change?

RP: First, it's about the conversation and ensuring people become aware of patterns and their consequences. But it has a host of policy implications. So I've mentioned 32 per cent of the people don't have somewhere to go if they had a financial crisis. Our work on payday loans and the structure of that, which is a business response to a marketplace that is created by this. When one institution fails, others are forced somewhat to take over. 

When I grew up, the notion of having breakfast at school, that really wasn’t there; that happened in Third World countries. We now have breakfast programs because children aren't getting a proper breakfast. Without a proper breakfast, you can't do the task of education. So, the schools have taken on ancillary things.

In Ontario right now there's a pilot project. The Ontario Ministry of Health has identified that five per cent of Ontarians use 50 per cent of the health care resources. So, the five per cent make most intense use of 50 per cent of the health care resources. Loneliness and social isolation is a major contributing factor to whether or not you fall within that five per cent. 

There are now only 11 areas that are on a pilot right now, modeling a British contract, which is called social prescription. When you go to the doctor, rather than automatically prescribing a drug to be filled out at the drug store, he might prescribe something that will address your need for connectedness.

There are agencies set up to help you go to the art gallery, go to a live event, or go be with people. And they're actually prescribing this in a parallel program in Britain. It has been found to decrease doctor or hospitalization among those group by 14 per cent over four years. 

The notion that it is the job of the health care system to teach people how to get involved in a community group or to, that used to be part of parenting and family.

That brings us back to the spiritual dimension. Because if you don't have a place you can go, if family isn't there, or family doesn't know and you don't have anywhere you can go, something says, “you have to look after your neighbor.” Because you're never going to learn it otherwise, are you? There isn't incentive to understand who your neighbor is.

RP: And no government program is going to be able to teach that. And that's where it comes back down to the core emphasis on the complete range of social institutions, the need to be vibrant and healthy. And when there's a problem with one, it impacts the others. You need a healthy balanced approach.

My basic takeaway is this: social isolation is a serious and very complex problem. It takes all of our institutions to be healthy to address it.

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