Kitchener-Waterloo

Guelph doctors, health providers treat loneliness by prescribing yoga and crochet lessons

The Guelph Community Health Centre is fighting loneliness by prescribing patients Zumba classes and crochet lessons.

The Guelph Community Health Centre is one of 11 health centres taking part in a social prescription pilot

Participants take part in Soup and Crochet with Grandma Penny. (Submitted by Karrie Cumming)

A new program in Guelph is helping doctors and nurse practitioners diagnose and treat a condition that's seen as a growing threat to public health: social isolation. 

The Guelph Community Health Centre is one of 11 health centres across the province taking part in a "social prescription" program that connects patients with group activities, such as Zumba classes and sewing circles.

"Across the board ... loneliness is being seen more and more as a as a health concern," said Karrie Cumming, a health promoter at the Guelph CHC, who noted that the centre's program is targeting key populations including newcomers and those with mental health and addiction issues.

Research suggests that people who are isolated have a 50 per cent greater risk of early death — a figure that's roughly equivalent to the negative health impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to a 2017 report by Ontario's chief medical officer of health. 

Grandma Penny assists a participant with her crochet work. (Submitted by Karrie Cumming)

Some of the programs on deck locally include English conversation circles, a community garden and a popular drop-in program, "Soup and Crochet with Grandma Penny."

"I've seen changes in folks that regularly attended," said Izabela Lukomska, who has taken part in programs as both a client and volunteer.

"I've seen people make connections ... I saw a neighbour of mine talk more, become more verbal, more connective, more willing to take chances to be outside of her regular self."

Reducing doctor and ER visits

Often, people who are isolated book appointments with their doctor or visit the emergency room as a way of getting attention and support, according to an interim progress report on the provincial social prescription program.

Therefore, by treating loneliness, policy makers believe we can reduce overall pressure on the healthcare system.

Research out of the United Kingdom, an early adopter of social prescription programs, has showed promise on this front. A review of UK projects found that these referrals led to a 28 per cent drop in demand on GP services and a 24 per cent drop in emergency room visits, according to the same report. 

Health promoter Karrie Cumming says research out of the United Kingdom shows that social prescriptions can help reduce burden on the healthcare system. She's optimistic the Guelph program will yield similar results. (Submitted by Karrie Cumming)

Cumming said the Guelph CHC is still gathering data about the impact of the local program, but said she expects to have strong results when the program wraps up.

"If the results are anything like our mentors in the UK are seeing, then we really are hopeful and optimistic that this can have a can have a big impact," Cumming said.

The program is funded by a grant through the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and runs until December 2019.

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