British Columbia

'Worse than smoking, it's worse than obesity': isolation major health concern for seniors

For seniors living alone, it is often difficult to avoid feeling isolated and, for those living with dementia, it can be an even greater challenge.

Allies in Aging encourages reaching out to seniors at risk

There is usually a life change that triggers isolation — a move, the death of a spouse or a diagnosis of dementia, says Mariam Larson. (CBC News)

For seniors living alone, it is often difficult to avoid feeling isolated and, for those living with dementia, it can be an even greater challenge.

Allies in Aging, a federally-funded group that fights isolation in older adults, is trying to change that pattern through outreach initiatives, training and other projects.  

Mariam Larson, a gerontologist and coordinator with Allies in Aging, said isolation is becoming an increasingly prevalent health concern globally.  

"It's worse than smoking. It's worse than obesity," she said. "We didn't realize how much it can affect health beyond just quality of life."

Isolation isn't just a matter of how often someone socializes, she told CBC Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

It's about having a supportive community around and knowing there are people around to call on for company, a listening ear or help.

Triggers of isolation

For seniors, Larson said, there is usually a life change that triggers isolation — a move, the death of a spouse or a diagnosis of dementia.

According to Statistics Canada, as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians report feeling lonely.

Those with dementia are particularly at risk of being lonely and isolated, Larson said.

"There is the fear and there is the stigma of dementia," she said. "Our society does not do a very good job of keeping people connected when there have been changes."

Simply getting a diagnosis of dementia can be enough to keep friends away, Larson said, a problem that other countries like the United Kingdom are trying to solve.

"The U.K. has just created a minister of loneliness and in their report, they noted that 38 per cent of people with dementia lose friends after diagnosis," she said. "Simply getting the diagnosis changes that."

Taking the time to reach out to seniors at risk of isolation and watching for warning signs can make all the difference, Larson emphasized.

"If [you] see a withdrawal, if [you] see a change in participation in things … it can be a sign that you need to make a little extra effort," she said.

With files from The Early Edition.

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