In a heavily dense area like Hamilton's downtown, it's difficult to imagine someone being socially isolated. But one researcher says this problem exists among seniors, and she's trying to understand why.
Rachel Weldrick, a PhD candidate in McMaster University's Health, Aging and Society program, will interview older women living downtown Hamilton to understand isolation in an urban setting, an under-studied aspect of the larger issue, she says.
"I want to hear in their own words what it's like to be isolated, even though you're living downtown in a city," she said.
"My hope is that one day we don't have so many isolated seniors. So I'd like to understand how it even happens that people living with thousands of people around them can become so isolated."
Weldrick says a lot of work has been focused on seniors in rural settings who are geographically isolated. But it isn't always a location issue, she says. It's a "multi-dimensional experience."
'We just want a little bit more compassion shown to us instead of pushing us aside like we're nothing.' - Bonnie Dufour
"It's people who don't have enough good quality social contact with fulfilling relationships," said Weldrick. "It means they don't have enough good social contact and they don't feel that they really are connected or belonging in their community."
Weldrick will begin screening female seniors for her study in the spring. She's targeting women because they're known to live longer and says they can be especially vulnerable with finances playing a large role.
The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship is funding the program, says Weldrick. It's a competitive scholarship.
"I do feel like I'm tasked now with the responsibility of doing the absolute most I can do for my community because the government has put this responsibility in my hands," said Weldrick.
Isolation is an issue among Hamilton's seniors in general. Bonnie Dufour knows that well.
Accessing an downtown program
Dufour has been visiting the seniors drop-in at the Eva Rothwell Centre on Wentworth Street North for two years.
"We're human beings and we need help, and sometimes we just need that little bit of compassion ... and (for someone) to spend maybe a little bit of time with us," she said. "We just want a little bit more compassion shown to us instead of pushing us aside like we're nothing."
St. Matthew's House offers a program where seniors can enjoy two meals day along with activities and assistance with access to services.
"I come here for companionship," said Dufour, who started coming after health issues confined her at home. "I come here because I was so lonely."
"I can't go shopping," she said. "I can't do things. But here, I get to interact by playing cards, painting, having a meal with somebody, not always alone, and that's why I come here."
A plan to tackle senior isolation
Not everyone is aware of such programs, or can't access them. But there's already a plan in Hamilton to reach seniors on a greater scale.
With money from Canada's New Horizon's for Seniors Program, seven collaborating organizations developed the Hamilton Seniors Isolation Impact Plan (HSIIP), a three-year initiative.
Each agency leads a project that contributes to the shared goal of reaching 20 per cent of isolated seniors city-wide.
Taralyn Prindiville of the Hamilton Council of Aging, and project manager and backbone of HSIIP, says they connect seniors to programs and services through community, hospital, and peer connectors.
'The social piece actually usually ends up coming last. It's like the cherry on top.' - Taralyn Prindiville, Hamilton Council of Aging
"This is a really major issue in Hamilton," said Prindiville. "There are a lot of seniors out there that are really isolated and not accessing any services and have no one in their lives … so these are people that are kind of falling through the cracks."
Prindiville says seniors aren't finding the help they need. Often, that coincides with low income, mental health issues, lack of transportation, and housing issues.
"Often when we start working with a senior, they might not even have their basic needs met," she said. "So what the connectors do, first and foremost, is set up a meal delivery or get them set up with transportation and make sure all of their basic needs are met.
"The social piece actually usually ends up coming last. It's like the cherry on top."
Prindiville says community members have an important role to play. In an ideal situation, people would be educated about the risk factors of social isolation.
Here are a few risk factors:
- Older age (being aged 80+).
- Living alone.
- Having no children or contact with family.
- Having a chronic illness or disability.
- Loss of vision or hearing.
- Mobility issues.
- Lack of access to transportation.
- Living with a low income.
- Membership in a vulnerable group.
- Language (non-English speaking).
- Location (rural, unsafe or inaccessible).
The HSIIP has already served more than 620 isolated seniors from May 2016 to September 2017.
An aging country
The research is relevant with Canada's aging demographic. The country's population is getting older on a larger scale.
Statistics Canada data shows that in 2015, people 65 years and older now outnumber children aged 0 to 14 years old for the first time.
Census figures released in May of this year shows there are 5.9 million Canadian seniors, compared to 5.8 million Canadians 14 and under.
This is due to the historic increase in the number of people over 65 — a jump of 20 per cent since 2011, and a significantly greater increase than the five per cent growth experienced by the population as a whole.
According to predictions, about 23 per cent of Canadians will be seniors by 2031.
Information and referral systems helping seniors to access community support can be found online.