Laughing over spilled Jell-O: a radical prescription for loneliness in seniors

Why a 92-year-old woman now sees her roomate, 23, as a daughter.
Housing program connects students and seniors 1:09
Listen to the full episode26:29

Roommates Cara Duncan and Lesly Adamson laugh, remembering the time Adamson tripped on the stairs.

"I saw you slowly reaching your hand for the Jell-O. That was your first concern, so I knew you were okay."

"Yes, yes!" Adamson said with a laugh.

Lesly Adamson's daughter Samantha is less nervous about leaving her mom in the house alone now that Cara, far right, lives there. (Jeff Goodes/CBC)

Adamson and Duncan are typical roommates except for one small demographic detail: Duncan  is 23 and Adamson is 92.

They met through Symbiosis, a co-housing project run by the school of graduate studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. The project hooks up students in need of safe, affordable housing and neighbourhood seniors in need of companionship.

It's one of the growing ways to creatively address the health problem of loneliness in seniors. The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging found that 30 per cent of women over the age of 75 reported being lonely.

[Cara's] good company.- Lesly Adamson

According to a study out of Brigham Young University, loneliness is as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is even more damaging to your to body than obesity and diabetes. Lonely people are also at greater risk of heart attacks, Alzheimer's disease and spread of cancer.

Duncan and Adamson hit it off during an interview and soon after, Cara moved in to Lesly's tidy bungalow in suburban Ancaster. Duncan has her own bedroom, and in exchange for a reduced rent became a live-in companion to Adamson.

'It was a big step'

Almost a year later, the two sit in the living room chatting like old friends. Adamson admits it was initially difficult to get used to the idea of having a roommate, particularly one who was 70 years younger.

"It was a big step. I felt it was in a way an intrusion into my life," she remembered.

But that's not the case today.

"Now I think of you as a daughter," Adamson told Duncan.

Lesly Adamson said she initially considered a roommate to be an intrusion but now Cara's like a daughter to her. (Jeff Goodes/CBC)

Adamson's daughter Samantha lives in Toronto, about 80 kilometres away.  When she and her three brothers heard about Symbiosis, they thought it might help them deal with the challenges of having an older parent living alone.

"We were nervous about leaving her in the house alone. She would fall. Sometimes we didn't know," she said.

"And she was lonely. So she wasn't having that interaction with someone. Everyone has their own lives and their own families."

Adamson and Duncan like their living situation so much that when Duncan graduated last spring, her lease was extended.

"I wanted her to stay. She's good company," said Adamson.

Similar intergenerational housing programs exist in Toronto, Montreal, Trois-Rivieres and Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley.  A program in London Ont., has university students living alongside seniors in a retirement home.

'Social prescribing experts' hired for lonely seniors

In January, the British government announced the creation of a Ministry of Loneliness as part of a multimillion-dollar strategy to reduce visits to ERs and the doctor's office linked to loneliness.  

Family doctor Mayur Lakhani has a social prescribing expert in his office. (Grainge Photography/RCGP)

Doctors are being encouraged to treat loneliness by "prescribing" activities like cookery classes, walking clubs and art groups. GPs are starting to hire "social prescribing experts" based in doctors offices, who are akin to community guides, rather than social workers.

Dr. Mayur Lakhani, a family doctor and president of Britain's Royal College of General Practitioners, can see up to five lonely patients each day in his practice. For the past 18 months, he's had a social prescribing expert in his office who guides them to activities from volunteering to walking.

Lakhani said it's so popular people come in asking to speak to the social prescribing expert, bypassing the doctor completely. The GPs appreciate that there's someone on staff who has the time to handle the social aspect of their patient's care.

'Health connectors'

Five years ago, Dr. Helen Kingston, another U.K. doctor, came up with a plan to treat lonely patients living in her hometown of Frome, in southern England.

The Compassionate Frome Project began by organizing hundreds of volunteers within the community, such as social workers, drug counsellors, hairdressers and taxi drivers. These "health connectors" typically help people sign up for a social event in the community and even go with them for moral support.

"It was aimed at trying to give us the tools to be able to help people with the things that really mattered to them," said Kingston.

Reduces emergency visits

Kingston said although it seems modest in scope, the program has had dramatic results.

"We were able to get the data to show that this approach … actually reduces the number of people going into the hospital as an emergency. It saves 60 pounds [about $100 Cdn]  for every 10 pounds [$17] that was invested in the scheme in terms of admissions savings. It is making a huge difference."

For social prescribing, doing the right thing is cost effective, said Dr. Helen Kingston. (Frome Medical Centre)


Social prescribing is beginning to gain a foothold in Canada. Starting this month, Quebec doctors will be able to prescribe a visit to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Ontario has started a social prescribing pilot project in 11 community health centres in the province.

The uptake is not surprising to Kingston.

"It just happens to be that doing the right thing is cost effective."

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