Scoping Review of the Literature Social Isolation of Seniors 2013-2014

Defining social isolation

The concept of social isolation is multi-faceted and defined inconsistently in the literature. It cuts across many areas affecting seniors, including healthy aging, active participation, income security, elder abuse, caregiving, transportation, aging in place and age-friendly communities. Creating a single definition of the concept is therefore highly challenging.

Social isolation is commonly defined as a low quantity and quality of contact with others, and includes “number of contacts, feeling of belonging, fulfilling relationships, engagement with others, and quality of network members to determine social isolation” (Nicholas & Nicholson, 2008).

Socially isolated persons lack social contacts, social roles, and mutually rewarding relationship (Keefe, Andrew, Fancey & Hall, 2006; North Sky Consulting Group Ltd., 2013). As noted in the 2013 Senate Report, physical, economic and social barriers can impact a person’s opportunity to participate and be engaged in society. Marginalized individuals tend to be disconnected from society (Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, 2013). Based on a report prepared for the City of Nanaimo, British Columbia, the identification of isolated seniors is influenced by the lack of understanding about the meaning or characteristics of isolated seniors (North Sky Consulting Group Ltd., 2013). The severity of isolation can vary from person to person depending on whether it is voluntary or involuntary; permanent/chronic, episodic, or temporary; or a result of multiple risk factors (British Columbia Ministry of Health, 2004; Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Seniors, 2007; North Sky Consulting Group Ltd., 2013).

It is important to understand how social isolation and loneliness are related and defined, as well as how researchers attempt to objectively measure prevalence rates, risk factors and consequences. Loneliness is often described as the subjective counterpart to social isolation (Windle, Francis & Coomber, 2011). While social isolation can be measured objectively by observing the social network and interactions of seniors, loneliness can be measured subjectively by questioning perceptions and feelings with regards to social relationships and social activity (British Columbia Ministry of Health, 2004). People can feel lonely even when in the company of others, and conversely, lonely persons are not necessarily socially isolated. At the same time, the effects of social isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness. For example, when an individual expresses or feels discontent with their solitude (Hall, 2004).

The concepts of social isolation and loneliness often appear in a single definition. Some literature argues for keeping the terms separate since combining them may lead to misinterpretation and inaccurate policy development (Cloutier-Fisher, Kobayashi, Hogg-Jackson & Roth, 2006). Other research indicates that a combination of subjective and objective elements should be considered when defining social isolation (Nicholas & Nicholson, 2008).

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