Toronto getting older and more isolated: Vital Signs report

More Torontonians than ever are leading more isolated lives and that could have far-reaching consequences for the health and welfare of the population, especially seniors, according to the co-author of the Toronto Foundation's annual Vital Signs report.

The Vital Signs report, released Wednesday, is an annual snapshot of quality of life in the city

The Toronto Seniors' Forum meets monthly to discuss seniors issues with city officials, including the impacts of isolation. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

More Torontonians than ever are leading more isolated lives and that could have far-reaching consequences for the health and welfare of the population, especially seniors, according to the co-author of the Toronto Foundation's annual Vital Signs report. 

One-third of households are made up of one person, and Sean Meagher, who's also executive director of Social Planning Toronto, attributes that movement to the city's aging population.

"Seniors are one of the driving forces in that shift. A lot of the folks who are living alone are in fact seniors," Meagher said. "But the other consequence of that is that people are just a little bit more isolated than they used to be."

The Vital Signs Report, released Wednesday, compiles close to 200 reports and studies detailing the quality of life in Toronto, including the census data Meagher referenced.

In 2016, seniors outnumbered children for the first time in Toronto's history, and meanwhile, single-person households continued to rise.

Vital Signs report co-author Sean Meagher says we need to think about the impacts of loneliness. He said small, local parkettes are one way to promote gathering in a community. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

But an increasingly isolated city, according to Meagher, means we're running some serious risks.

"We see in studies all around the world the disconnection of people ... has adverse health effects," he told CBC Toronto. 

"A smaller proportion of folks in the city live in social relationships with other people in their household, and that means we need to be thinking about how do we keep those folks engaged and connected."

Isolation and loneliness

Although he has many clients who are happy to live alone, there are some consequences to more isolated seniors, according to Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at the Sinai Health System and the University Health Network

"Living alone can actually become a risk factor for becoming lonely, and loneliness, we know, can have significant health concerns," he said. "Those health impacts can sometimes lead to depression and they can also aggravate ... heart issues and other issues that people might be living with."

That concern can by mitigated, Sinha says, by making sure the right resources and services are available, such as a library, a community centre or a park nearby where people can participate in activities and connect with their neighbours.

Dr. Samir Sinha also played a huge role in creating Toronto's first seniors strategy. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

Right now, Sinha believes we're not creating enough of those connections.

"We need to do a better job making sure that those individuals know what things might be out there for them, because not everything appeals to everyone," he said.

According to Meagher, the outer edges and the very centre of the city, places like Malvern, Rexdale, portions of North York and even the waterfront, are more vulnerable because the population has steeply risen, but the amenities haven't changed.

Community programs creating connections

90-year-old Yulah Wolfe lives on her own in an apartment on Queens Quay West. 

Yulah Wolfe grew-up in Guyana with eight siblings, then had three children of her own. She came to Canada to find work, eventually settling into the food industry, preparing pastries and decorating cakes. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

She's comfortable living alone, but at times, it's not easy.

"My daughter don't live too far," she said, "But as I get older, I feel more lonely now."

Certain things make that isolation worse, like broken elevators. Wolfe said when those go down, she'll cancel family visits because the walk back-up to the sixth floor is hard on her knees.

Meagher says that's a problem he hears about often.

"If you're waiting 15, 20 minutes for an elevator, connecting to the rest of the world is more difficult," he said.

The winter months also present a problem for Wolfe.

"I'll go to the market and pick-up little light things by myself. I like going out," she said. "When this bad weather comes around, I don't like to go out. Especially when you see snow out there. I fell down out there already."

Yulah Wolfe shares details of her 90th birthday party with a volunteer from Neighbour 2 Neighbour. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

To bring connections to her front door, Wolfe works with a program called Neighbour 2 Neighbour 2.0, which is a group of community-focused agencies in four Toronto communities.

They'll match a volunteer with an older adult who may be socially isolated and facilitate meetings, phone calls or help the person get to and from appointments. They'll also connect people with events at their local community centre.

"It's usually a layered process to get to know them because you have to connect a few times before ... you can keep calling them, keep visiting," said Rebekah Churchyard, the program's project manager. 

They get referrals from local health networks, hospitals, neighbours or from friends and family.

Rebekah Churchyard says Neighbour 2 Neighbour is so important to her because of the connection she had with her own grandmother. She says even if clients aren't comfortable with someone in their own home, they'll take them for coffee or go for a walk instead. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

"We don't want this to be about 'needy older people.' It's about people who are looking to make connections and as you get older there are multiple losses in your life that make that a bit harder," Churchyard said. "There are friendships that are made through this program that last forever."

City solutions

Solutions to isolation are also being discussed at the city level, where they convene a monthly seniors' forum and are working on their second edition of a citywide seniors strategy.

"We need to build a society and a city here in Toronto that is caring, respectful, accessible, age-friendly and if you do that, you not only build a society that supports people who are seniors ... you build a society that everybody is included in," said Coun. Josh Matlow, who's also the city's seniors advocate. 

By 2031, Josh Matlow and other city officials estimate roughly a quarter of city will be made up of people over 60. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

That work includes creating age-friendly spaces and programs to draw people out of their homes.

"We've got a long way to go. Our roads, our public spaces, our public facilities were not designed initially to be age-friendly," Matlow said.

"So not only do we have to retrofit what we have, but we also have to think through an age-friendly lens through everything we do, whether we design a library, a community centre or a public square park."

The city added some age-friendly adaptations to the benches in Grange Park. They have no ends on one side, so it's easy to slide on and off, they have middle armrests for added support and they're a different height than most benches, allowing people to get up and down more easily. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

The second seniors strategy will be released in the spring, with renewed focus on road safety, ageism and street design.

About the Author

Taylor Simmons

Associate Producer, CBC Toronto

Taylor Simmons works in all areas of the CBC Toronto newsroom, from writing for the website to producing TV and radio stories. Taylor grew up in Mississauga, Ont. and studied journalism at Western University. You can reach her at taylor.simmons@cbc.ca.