Report on the Social Isolation of Seniors

Suggested Measures

Based on the themes that emerged throughout the consultation, and following more in-depth discussions with national-level experts and stakeholders, the Council is proposing suggestions for federal action under four broad directions:

  1. Raise Public Awareness of the Social Isolation of Seniors.
  2. Promote Improved Access to Information, Services and Programs for Seniors.
  3. Build the Collective Capacity of Organizations and to Address the Social Isolation of Seniors through Social Innovation.
  4. Support Research to Better Understand the Issue of Social Isolation.

1. Raise Public Awareness of the Social Isolation of Seniors

Negative stereotypes about aging in society at large can go unrecognized and unaddressed but can affect how seniors participate in the community. Due to stigma or feelings of embarrassment, seniors may underuse their social support network or may deny requiring assistance.

The need to dispel myths associated with aging was discussed at each roundtable. Participants spoke anecdotally of seniors who, through fear of stigma or ageist attitudes, were isolating themselves and therefore not leading active and engaged lives. Stereotypes that portray seniors as either weak and frail or overly (unrealistically) vibrant and engaged were cited as inhibitors. Participants would like to see more realistic and diverse images of aging (e.g. across age groups, gender, socio-economics, culture, health status, education, etc.) used to portray seniors in the media, advertisements and publications.

To address the issue of social isolation of seniors, participants recommended that the federal government explore options for an awareness campaign to encourage older Canadians to stay engaged in the community. It was suggested that the media could help motivate seniors to stay engaged in the community by portraying them using realistic images, and by celebrating diversity in the aging population and experience. The importance of addressing social isolation from a life course perspective was also raised, given the value of social connections, networks and involvement throughout the aging process, and how investments into social connections earlier in life can be realized in older ages. Furthermore, participants suggested that consideration be given to aligning efforts of the awareness campaign with the National Seniors Day.

Awareness efforts could also bring positive attention to examples of seniors who were socially isolated but subsequently found community engagement. As raised by participants during the consultation process, including evidence-based key messages, showcasing diversity (i.e. content is culturally sensitive and cognizant of gender, aboriginal and immigrants’ cultural or traditional values, beliefs and practices) and focusing on intergenerational relations to foster collaborations among generations could be important components of the awareness campaign. Stakeholders noted that the media plays a key role in influencing the public’s perception of different generations and can be used to communicate positive messages about the valuable contributions made by older Canadians.

This advice is consistent with the recommendations of the Senate Report (2013): In From the Margins, Part II: Reducing Barriers to Social Inclusion and Social CohesionFootnote 30 , which proposed employing campaigns to explain the importance of community engagement as well as to raise public awareness about elder abuse, particularly for seniors who are living independently or in isolation.

An awareness campaign could be modeled on the successful Government of Canada Federal Elder Abuse InitiativeFootnote 31, the work led by the Positive Images of Aging working groupFootnote 32  of the Forum of Federal/Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Seniors or the anti-ageism campaign led by the Association québécoise de gérontologieFootnote 33 .

Suggestion for Action

The National Seniors Council suggests that the federal government work in collaboration with provincial/territorial/regional governments and community partners to promote social inclusion, address ageism and encourage engagement of seniors by raising awareness of the benefits of social participation of seniors, celebrating diversity in the aging Canadian population, and showcasing realistic images of the aging process using a life course approach.

Suggested Approaches

  • Lead an awareness campaign to dispel myths associated with aging and social isolation.
  • Lead smaller targeted awareness raising initiatives through the use of social media and/or by leveraging external organizations’ activities to disseminate key messages addressing the social isolation of seniors.
  • These efforts could:
    • focus key messages to help raise awareness of the effects of aging including the influence of aging on mental health; to address the stigma associated with reaching out for help in the face of loneliness or social isolation; and/or to encourage seniors to remain engaged and connected to their communities;
    • be supported by information resources: messaging could refer audiences to seniors.gc.ca and/or to a telephone service line that would inform older adults of services in their area, such as 1 800 O-Canada or other community information and referral networks (such as 211 Canada); and print-based information could be disseminated through various front-line networks and points-of-service, such as family physicians, emergency rooms, pharmacies or community-based businesses (e.g. hairdressers, coffee shops and grocery stores) and public facilities (e.g. libraries); and,
    • include an evaluation component to measure reach, effectiveness and impact of messaging.

2. Promote Improved Access to Information, Services and Programs for Seniors

For many seniors, access to information, services and programs was identified as a barrier to inclusion or fulfilling basic social needs since some find “navigating the system” challenging. Positive factors that contribute to the social integration of seniors include access to resources, finding and obtaining needed services, adequate income and housing and having access to transportationFootnote 34 .

Socially isolated seniors are vulnerable, often needing assistance but unable or unwilling to seek or receive it. They are less likely to know of or use services provided for them by government, non-government organizations, the private sector or their community. Seniors, their families and caregivers need to have access to appropriate information in order to remain active participants in their community. As noted during the consultation, front-line service providers are becoming “system/service navigatorsFootnote 35 ” and helping seniors to access the information they need.

Stakeholders and Council members suggested looking at ways of expanding existing telephone help lines and websites to better support seniors, their families and caregivers, including those who are socially isolated or at risk of becoming socially isolated. The importance of supporting telephone help line information specialists is needed to assess if the needs of older callers whether of resources, information or services due to social isolation is key to ensuring the dissemination of accurate and client-centred information.

In recent years, the Government of Canada has developed a number of initiatives that successfully increased access to services, by seniors facing barriers (i.e. isolation, language and low literacy). Service Canada’s Mobile Outreach ServiceFootnote 36  is one such initiative delivered in each province and territory. The seniors.gc.ca website is also a federal initiative that is a central resource for seniors, their families, caregivers and supporting service organizations, providing information on federal, provincial, territorial and some municipal government benefits and services. For immigrant seniors, Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s Settlement Program continues to provide a broad range of services that help older newcomers identify and address their settlement needs in Canada. These services include information and orientation, referrals to community-based supports, as well as opportunities to establish social and professional networks in their communities.

Likewise, the new Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat Policy on Service, which became effective on October 1, 2014, aims to “establish a strategic and coherent approach to the design and delivery of Government of Canada external and internal enterprise services that is client-centric, realizes operational efficiencies and promotes a culture of service management excellence”Footnote 37. The expected results include more efficient Government of Canada services, better service experience for clients and increased number and uptake of priority e-services.

Consultation participants noted that seniors are increasingly using technology (i.e. the Internet, automated phone directories, etc.) to access information. However, affordability, limited access to high-speed broadband networks in rural communities and the lack of comfort with technology mean that not all seniors embrace these options.

It was suggested that the federal government continue to extend and enhance the high-speed broadband networks for Canadians living in rural or remote locations through the Connecting CanadiansFootnote 38  program as well as help support the technological literacy of older Canadians.

When their levels of literacy and digital technology proficiency enable seniors to seek, understand and apply information, they are better able to make informed decisions regarding their health care, housing and financial affairs.

International surveys of adult skills (IALS 2003Footnote 39 , PIAAC 2012Footnote 40) demonstrate that proficiency in essential skills declines with age, and is lowest among those over the age of 65, followed by those aged 55-65. This includes traditional literacy and numeracy skills, as well as digital technology skills, measured in PIAAC as “problem-solving in technology rich environments”. Thus, when developing programs and services targeted towards older adults and seniors, it is important to consider alternative means of connecting with them (i.e. print-based communications, traditional media, telephone lines, etc.), while also providing opportunities to learn about and use digital technology.

Many seniors will require assistance in improving their literacy skills before they can begin to learn digital technology skills. They also need improved literacy skills to be able to access traditional forms of written information and communication, which will increase their levels of participation in society, and thus reduce their levels of social isolation.

Suggestion for Action

The National Seniors Council suggests that the federal government consider building on the successes of existing initiatives and mechanisms to support and facilitate increased access to information, services and programs for seniors, their caregivers, and system/service navigators.

Suggested Approaches

  • Recognizing that a website renewal exercise is underway that will lead to a centralized Canada.ca site, the Government of Canada should explore options to maintain or increase the visibility of information available to seniors and their caregivers (including the information currently available on seniors.gc.ca).
    • In order to confirm the web content meets the needs of seniors and their caregivers, user testing/usability studies with older Canadians are recommended.
  • Capitalize on the success of the 211 telephone help line and website which provide a gateway to community, social, non-clinical health and related government services by supporting the program’s expansion to provide national and cross-jurisdictional service coverage.
    • To help address the social isolation of seniors, support could also be given to develop information specialists trained to assess if older callers are in need of resources, information or services.
  • Continue to develop the infrastructure to provide high-speed broadband networks for rural Canadians through the Connecting Canadians initiative.
    • Support efforts to foster the technological literacy of older Canadians such as by promoting and sharing existing information and tools developed through federally funded projects (e.g. NHSP projects, products of the former Community Access Program, etc.).

3. Build the Collective Capacity of Organizations to Address Isolation of Seniors through Social Innovation

Governments and community organizations have developed numerous tools and resources relating to social isolation and promoting social integration in communities. For example, the New Horizons for Seniors Program (NHSP)Footnote 41  was lauded as a valuable federal program providing support to projects involving seniors focusing on social participation and volunteering.

Given the complexity and scope of social isolation, participants acknowledged the need for innovative collaborative approaches that leverage the efforts of key players and offer a multi-disciplinary approach. Participants indicated a desire for more conversations involving all levels of government and representatives from the not-for-profit and private sectors to design socially innovativeFootnote 42  projects addressing the isolation of seniors. Collaborations and sustainable actions were noted as crucial to achieving this goal.

The consultations also revealed that although both rural and urban seniors were identified as being at risk of social isolation, the risk factors may differ between them. For example, rural or remote communities often do not have a full range of available resources or the infrastructure to enable seniors to remain connected within their communities (lack of transportation options, fewer community supports, limited or no connectivity to the internet). For older urban citizens, social isolation may be more a result of living in an unsafe neighbourhood, a higher cost of living or being less connected and anonymous to their neighbors.

Roundtable participants and Council members highlighted the importance of supporting organizations to share information, resources and tools that promote social inclusion as well as promising practices that engage seniors in the community. Providing opportunities for dialogue and partnerships to discuss common practices and approaches were proposed as ways to leverage skills and resources in different communities to address the social isolation of seniors.

Capitalizing on existing tools and initiatives was also noted by stakeholders as a key component to address the needs of socially isolated seniors or those at risk of becoming socially isolated. For example, the Age-Friendly Communities in Canada: Community Implementation Guide and ToolboxFootnote 43  was noted as an important resource. Participants at the national roundtable stated that sharing examples of Age-Friendly Community projects that are addressing social isolation could help to inspire communities to promote social integration of seniors.

Additionally, the former Federal/Provincial/Territorial (F/P/T) working group on social isolation, through research and consultations, developed the Working Together for Seniors toolkit to assist organizations and governments to screen existing and planned programs and practices for their impact on social isolationFootnote 44 .

Suggestion for Action

The National Seniors Council suggests that the federal government foster a culture that breeds social innovation and builds on trusting relationships among governments, businesses, not-for-profit organizations, community organizations, professional networks and seniors to work on activities that would leverage the collective skills and resources in communities to address the social isolation of seniors.

Suggested Approaches

  • Develop and disseminate a “guiding principles” document to encourage organizations and front-line workers to think about how they can address the social isolation of seniors. The document could:
    • be developed in consultation with seniors as well as key players from the not-for-profit, public and private sectors; and,
    • support organizations by providing them with a framework for discussion and decision-making within their organizations as they work to meet the needs of seniors in their community.
  • Provide opportunities for dialogue and encourage community partners to collaborate on expanding or adapting successful/promising community initiatives that address the social isolation of seniors.
  • The New Horizons for Seniors Program could continue to fund small community projects that encourage the participation of seniors and prevent them from being isolated. The program could also be a funding partner in larger projects for initiatives that address social isolation of seniors, in particular, fostering organizational networks to build capacity.
  • Capitalize on existing initiatives and resources and support the sharing of information, promising practices and tools designed to address the needs of socially isolated seniors or those at risk of becoming socially isolated.
    • Consider updating and disseminating tools such as the Working Together for Seniors: A Toolkit to Promote the Social Integration of Seniors in Community Services, Programs and Policies developed by the FPT Forum on Seniors.
    • Explore opportunities to highlight Age-Friendly Communities (AFC) projects that are addressing social isolation and promote the awareness of age friendly tools that facilitate effective implementation and evaluation of the AFC initiatives.
  • Support innovative social partnerships that bring businesses and community organizations together to create sustainable options to address social isolation of seniors.

4. Support Research to Better Understand the Issue of Social Isolation

The impact of social isolation has been identified as a significant issue for seniors in past National Seniors Council reports on volunteerism, elder abuse, and positive and active ageing. As previously noted research on the issue in Canada and abroad is limited although promising practices are emerging. There is therefore a need to further examine the issue through research and knowledge development.

Stakeholders identified the need to undertake further research to validate the impact, quality and value of innovative and promising practice as well as increase the knowledge base with respect to social isolation and the health of seniors.

This suggestion is consistent with one of the recommendations of the Senate Report (2013)Footnote 45  to “initiate research that will lead to the development of a set of indicators to measure levels of social inclusion and social cohesion in Canada”. The same report suggests that these indicators should be used by the Government of Canada to establish goals for social inclusion and social cohesion in the design and evaluation of policies, programs and activities. The measures could also be incorporated into national health and social surveys.

Furthermore, The Rising Tide: The Impact of Dementia on Canadian SocietyFootnote 46  report recommends increasing the investment in dementia research through leveraging Canada’s dementia expertise, international partnerships, prevention research and continuing research to improve the quality of life for a person with dementia. As previously mentioned, participants noted the need for more research on the impact of dementia on the aging population. They also stated that community-based research should be prioritized to evaluate the effectiveness of current and new programs addressing issues of social isolation and dementia.

The Government of Canada has also, through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) supported projects such as “Making meaningful connections: A pilot study of a telenurse outreach intervention for socially isolated older adults in British Columbia”Footnote 47, “Connectivity of older adults in rural communities”Footnote 48, and large initiatives such as those related to a variety of eHealth technologies, to improve the social inclusion of seniors and their quality of life.

Suggestion for Action

The National Seniors Council suggests that the federal government continue to support research to better understand the issue of social isolation and links between social isolation and other seniors’ related issues.

Suggested Approaches

  • Undertake further research to validate the impact, quality and value of innovative and promising practices (e.g.multi-agency, multi-disciplinary approaches).
    • Consider doing so through analysis of data from the General Social Survey (GSS 27 – Social Identity) to be released in January 2015.
    • Consider evaluating international promising or best practices and their impact/related outcomes (e.g. UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness, UK’s Dementia Friends Initiative, etc.).
    • Increase the knowledge base on social isolation, impacts of demographic change, and the health of seniors through continued engagement in international collaborations to align research efforts. For example, collaborative initiatives such as the Joint Programming Initiative “More Years, Better Lives” led by the European Commission.
  • Provide readily accessible information on the economic and health impacts of social isolation.
    • Consider integrating measures into existing national health and social surveys that could validate the impact, quality and value of innovative practices addressing the social isolation of seniors.
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