As Canadian society grapples with the challenges of self-isolation relating to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, there is no doubt that many people will feel increasingly lonely during this time. In fact, health minister Patty Hajdu has encouraged people to continue to socialize during this period – albeit through phone calls or emails, in lieu of physically being together. Similarly, some medical professionals have been encouraging a change of phrase from “social distancing” to “physical distancing” to reflect this need for continued socialization.
The lack of an ability to be social, for example, has been particularly hard for Jennifer*, a senior whose husband of 58 years passed away this December, and now finds herself living alone for the first time ever in her home in rural Newfoundland. She is unable to interact with her neighbours, travel to see her grandchildren, or even be able to be visited by her daughter who lives in the province but fears visiting due to Jennifer’s underlying health conditions. She spends her time cleaning and doing other chores, managing her garden when the weather is nice, and talking to her family on the phone.
However, as a fairly social person, she recognizes she is struggling at this time and is longing for the ability to go outside again and socialize with her neighbours, friends and family.
“My nights, I can’t even remember them. I just exist, I am here alone, and my mind is just wandering constantly,” said Jennifer “Nobody can understand what I’m going (through). It’s just very hectic for me right now.”
Concerns about loneliness, however, are not shared exclusively by our seniors. For example, Raymond*, a mid-20s engineer in urban Alberta who lives alone, noted his own social life deteriorating as his work moved increasingly to home environments, meaning he no longer sees his colleagues, and social gatherings are prohibited. While he still maintains contact with friends, mostly through texting and sometimes through phone calls, he reflects that it is not the same and causes him to sometimes experience loneliness more than usual.
“When you live by yourself, you don’t really have anybody. And conference calls are not the same as seeing someone’s face in person.” said Raymond. “It makes me feel lonely sometimes.”
It is important to note, however, that the concern around loneliness is not a new phenomenon limited to this period of crisis. Instead, it is simply the continuation of a troubling sociological trend that Canadian policy makers need to address.
According to a 2019 study from the Angus Reid Institute, conducted with Cardus, many Canadians struggle with feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Nearly half of surveyed Canadians reported that they feel either “very lonely” (21per cent) or “somewhat lonely” (27 per cent), and six-in-ten Canadians (62 per cent) reported they would like their friends and family to spend more time with them. Further, the results indicated that feelings of loneliness are amplified for certain groups that already experience greater vulnerability and discrimination in society, including seniors, Indigenous populations, visible minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, and those with physical disabilities.
It would be a disservice to discuss the high prominence of loneliness existing now in our society without reflecting on the change in the make-up of Canadian households, and a declining appreciation of our traditional institutions. In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that for the first time ever, one-person households became the most common type of household in Canada, surpassing couples with children. It’s not so surprising when we consider recent social trends that reduced emphasis on the institution of family in favour of individualism. The change is similarly reflected when looking at statistics on declining family size and marriage rates, as well as diminishing attendance at religious institutions where social gatherings served as an integral part of their community offerings.
Loneliness, especially when continuous, can have severe negative effects on an individual’s physical and mental health. One survey of 13,812 older adults in the United States found that those who dealt with issues of chronic loneliness reported less exercise, more tobacco use, more physician contact and nursing home stays, and were more prone to depression compared to the non-lonely sample group. Other studies have confirmed these results, as well as demonstrating that prolonged periods of loneliness and social isolation can put individuals at risk of physical health conditions including coronary heart disease and stroke. Further, recent research has shown that these health risks are prevalent across individuals of all age groups, and not just limited to older populations.
These well-documented health risks associated with loneliness are why Canadian policy makers ought to address this issue in a more meaningful way, and catch up to other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom that have begun addressing this problem.
In October 2018, former UK prime minister Theresa May described loneliness as “one of the greatest public health challenges of our time” and launched a government loneliness strategy in response to a report from the Jo Cox Foundation. As part of this strategy, the government added loneliness to ministerial portfolios, designed a loneliness “policy test” for inclusion in departmental plans, and embedded loneliness into relationship educational classes for youth. Further, May confirmed that all General Practitioners would have authority to offer “social prescriptions” – that is, the ability to refer patients experiencing signs of loneliness to community activities and voluntary services in which they would be able to participate.
Some Canadian jurisdictions have since moved towards testing provisions like those included in the loneliness the strategy implemented in the UK, however slowly. For example, in September 2018 to December 2019, the Ontario government ran a pilot project in which physicians and nurses were authorized to refer clients to eleven of the province’s Community Health Centres (CHC) for social prescriptions. The CHC would tailor the specifics of the prescription to the client’s needs, and could include activities like dance lessons, museum visits and support groups – all with the goal of helping Ontarians feel less disconnected from their communities. A report on the success of this project is due this year.
Currently, social programming like this tends to fall on our community organizations and charities to provide. Michelle Porter, co-founder of the Souls Harbour Rescue Mission, a faith-based operation in Nova Scotia that offers emergency help such as food and clothing, notes that many who visit them are also in need of social contact and a sense of community.
“We tend to see people who use our services not just to eat, but also because they are lonely and want to socialize with other people,” said Porter.
Porter notes this is especially true for individuals who no longer have families in their neighbourhoods, such as widowed seniors or those who lost support due to addiction issues. For some, programming – like an ability to go to the Mission and eat a hot meal with others in the community – may be the only source of social contact they have, highlighting the importance of the work they do.
Overall, as we consider a post-coronavirus world – in which Canadians will emerge from loneliness-inducing mandated self-isolation periods that could possibly last months – it is more important than ever for our policy makers to develop new means of addressing loneliness, including developing a thorough loneliness reduction strategy like the United Kingdom, and offering further supports for local organizations that offer programming to combat loneliness in our neighbourhoods. In doing so, we can build stronger, healthier and happier communities that work for everyone.
* Names changed at request of those interviewed.