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Social isolation and loneliness: what’s the difference, and what can we do?

Social isolation and loneliness are often used interchangeably, but are they the same thing? Not exactly. Their difference, implications and possible solutions are broken down in a 2022 report from the National Institute on Ageing (NIA) from Toronto Metropolitan University called Understanding Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Older Canadians and How to Address. The report is the result of a 2018 grant from the RTOERO Foundation and made possible thanks to the generosity of RTOERO members and donors.

What is social isolation?

Social isolation refers to a measurable deficiency in the number of social relationships a person has—so it’s about the frequency of social interaction and the number of connections you have.

What is loneliness?

Loneliness is related but different – it’s more subjective. It’s an unpleasant sensation when your social relationships are lacking in quality and quantity compared to what you want. Someone might be surrounded by many people (so not appear socially isolated) but still feel lonely. Similarly, someone might have few contacts but enough high-quality ones that they don’t feel lonely.

What’s the relationship between social isolation and loneliness?

While the terms mean different things, their impact is related, as are the approaches for dealing with them. A 2019 survey from the Angus Reid Institute showed that those who are very isolated were also more likely to be very lonely. And if the lack of quality contacts can lead to loneliness, then efforts to reduce social isolation, for example, through group activities, can also impact loneliness by creating opportunities for meaningful connection.

How common are social isolation and loneliness?

It’s tricky to quantify the issue because Canada lacks common mechanisms for measuring and tracking social isolation and loneliness. One of the recommendations from the report is to Adopt consistent national definitions and focus on clearly identifying the actual scope of social isolation and loneliness in Canada.”

The report shares that a Canadian literature review found that about 16 per cent of older Canadians are socially isolated, and about 30 per cent are at risk of becoming socially isolated.

Data from the 2008-09 Canadian Community Health Survey showed that 24 per cent of Canadians aged 65 and older wished they could participate in more social activities. And that about 19 per cent of Canadians aged 65 years and older report feeling lonely.

Impact of loneliness and social isolation

Unsurprisingly, social isolation and loneliness can significantly affect physical and mental health. And they can lead to premature death.

A lack of social connection can cause changes in your life – you may do fewer activities, take less care with your hygiene, sleep may be affected, and you might do more risky behaviours, like excessive drinking. You may also experience psychological distress, including a lack of meaning, increased stress, and sometimes hopelessness. And you may stop following medical advice, including taking medications properly and focusing on diet and exercise. All these things can lead to changes in biomarkers—things like inflammation, high blood pressure, changes in genetic expression—and disease can develop. Here are some of the illness-related risks:

  • 50 per cent increased risk of dementia
  • 29 per cent increased risk of coronary heart disease
  • 32 per cent increased risk of stroke

We can’t fully quantify the societal cost of social isolation and loneliness. But, we know that those who are lonely use emergency services more than those who aren’t. Building communities for social engagement and integration at all ages will help prevent

What you can do about social isolation and loneliness

While social isolation and loneliness are very obviously systemic public health issues affecting a large number of people, there are things individuals can do to prevent social isolation or improve their situations.

  • Open up – we build meaningful connections through sharing and vulnerability. As you develop relationships, ensure you’re being honest with yourself and others and not simply trying to “fit in”. Similarly, your work to be open-minded and accepting of others will help create welcoming spaces where folks feel they belong.
  • Be flexible – sometimes social isolation can happen as our lives change – through a death of a loved one, after retirement, or when our mobility changes and we can’t do things we used to love. Maybe you’re in this situation now, or, if not, you can prepare for it with a bit of pre-thinking. If you lose the ability to do an activity you once loved, consider what else you could do instead. Or try something that’s always interested you. Volunteering is always a fantastic way to meet people and continue developing skills. If you’re in grief, consider looking for individual or group support to help you navigate. We don’t need to go through hard times alone.
  • Check your thinking – studies have shown that lonely people may see the social world as more threatening. Self-directed or internalized ageism also plays a role – we may embrace stereotypes about aging that lead us to become more socially isolated. Beliefs about being too old to do something, or concerns about what others might think, for example, may impact your willingness to try something new. 
  • Get active – physical activity, especially participating in group activities, can help to reduce isolation through the activities, and in helping you feel strong and reminding you that you’re capable. You can build strength at any age, which can prevent falls and broken bones.
  • Be an advocate – you can play a role in helping to change the situation in your local community or beyond. Look for opportunities to get involved on senior’s advisory committees with your local municipality or in groups through organizations like faith centres and senior’s centres. Support RTOERO’s advocacy efforts. It’s a win-win. Joining groups and campaigns is a great way to meet others and build skills while affecting positive change.
  • Align your philanthropy with the causeDonate to the RTOERO Foundation. We’re one of the only charitable foundations in Canada focused on the health and well-being of older adults. Taking action to affect change can bring a sense of purpose.

How did the pandemic impact loneliness among older adults?

There was concern that the public health restrictions would worsen loneliness among older adults in particular. Available data indicates that may be the case. Results from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging show a marked increase in reported loneliness pre-pandemic compared to the first year of the pandemic (April to December 2020). For women age 65-75, loneliness increased by 67 per cent and for women age 75-84, it increased by 37 per cent. For men, the increase was 45 per cent for 65-75 year olds and 33 per cent for 75 to 84 year olds.

Key actions needed in Canada to address social isolation and loneliness

The NIA report concludes with five key recommendations to guide policymakers and organizations working on social isolation and loneliness in Canada.

  1. Adopt consistent national definitions and focus on clearly identifying the actual scope of social isolation and loneliness in Canada
  2. Raise awareness, de-stigmatize and promote best practices for older Canadians who are experiencing or at risk of experiencing social isolation and loneliness
  3. Raise public and health provider awareness about the risks of social isolation and loneliness to people of all ages, including the adverse health effects
  4. Ensure research efforts continue to focus on understanding the impact of social isolation and loneliness in Canada, as well as evaluating the effectiveness of interventions to address it at the local, regional and national levels
  5. Build the collective capacity of organizations to address social isolation and loneliness and improve overall service delivery
  6. Prioritize equity, accessibility and inclusion-based approaches to addressing social isolation and loneliness

The RTOERO Foundation’s granting program focuses on innovative programs and action research to improve seniors health care, build social engagement and combat ageism. Social isolation is one of our funding streams. As part of our work, we support knowledge translation of the learnings from research and projects we’re part of. We’re working towards a society in which all seniors live with dignity and respect.