Seniors have sadly suffered Canada’s highest COVID-19 mortality rate.

But even seniors who’ve never caught the virus are suffering from another epidemic: loneliness. Physical distancing measures, though necessary, have left many older Canadians feeling socially isolated.

In one 2020 survey, 43 per cent of Ontarians aged 65 to 79 said they felt lonely during the pandemic. That’s dramatically higher than a pre-pandemic study from 2009, when just 12 per cent of older Canadians reported feelings of loneliness.

What many seniors are missing due to COVID-19 is a feeling of connection, something that’s vitally important for their health and well being.

Connecting is key to wellness

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association

“Social connection can lower anxiety and depression, help us regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem and empathy, and actually improve our immune systems. By neglecting our need to connect, we put our health at risk.” 

In a 2013 academic paper, geriatrician S.C. Tiwari argued loneliness should be considered a disease.

“Loneliness has now become an important public health concern,” Tiwari wrote. “It leads to pain, injury/loss, grief, fear, fatigue and exhaustion. Thus, it also makes a person sick, interferes in day-to-day functioning, and hampers recovery. Loneliness … should be considered a disease and should find its place in (the) classification of psychiatric disorders.”

Indeed, there is growing evidence that a lack of social connection can be harmful to mental health. 

Mental health risks

According to a 2014 review of scientific studies around the world:

  • Lonely people suffer from more symptoms of depression than those who maintain ties with other people
  • A “strong association” has been documented between loneliness and suicidal thoughts
  • In seniors aged 60 to 80, increased feelings of loneliness have been linked to a higher risk of depression

The authors of the review concluded that “left untended, loneliness has serious consequences (for the) mental and physical well-being of people.” One aspect of physical well-being that can be impaired by a lack of social connection is brain function.

For cognitive function

Human connection helps protect the brain as it ages.

According to research funded by the National Institute on Aging, loneliness triggers an immune response that promotes inflammation. In the brain, the researchers say, this inflammation can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.

Further, loneliness has actually been correlated with a two-fold risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s, as well as specific declines in semantic memory, perceptual speed and visuospatial ability.

After tracking the cognitive function of seniors (average age 65) for four years, scientists found that social isolation “was significantly associated with decreases in all cognitive function(s).” In particular, seniors who scored higher on the loneliness scale suffered declines in both immediate and delayed memory recall.

Staying connected, yet safe

How can seniors safely maintain social connections with others during a pandemic?

In the Ontario study we mentioned earlier, the two things that eased loneliness the most for seniors during the pandemic were: 

  • Receiving offers of support from other people 
  • Frequently communicating with family, friends and neighbours 

Aside from phone calls, video chats and distanced outdoor visits (adhering to public health guidelines, of course), the authors of that Ontario study also recommend

  • Outdoor fitness classes (check local public health advisories) 
  • Virtual exercise classes
  • Walking groups (check local public health guidance) 
  • Online or phone-based counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy or bereavement programs 
  • Mindfulness practices (i.e., meditation, yoga)
  • Virtual religious services

Another way seniors can safely interact with others is by joining a virtual book club, choir or other group activity. Creative outlets like knitting, singing, making cards, painting or writing can also lift a senior’s mood, especially if shared with others.

Volunteering gives many seniors a sense of purpose as well as community. During the pandemic, Volunteer Canada posts opportunities to volunteer virtually from home. 

As author and bereavement expert Dr. Joanne Cacciatore wrote, “There simply is no pill that can replace human connection. There is no pharmacy that can fill the need for compassionate interaction with others.”

For information about more community programs and resources in Toronto, call the Seniors Helpline at 416-217-2077 or dial 211. And, if you’re looking to connect with like-minded people in a safe, socially distanced way, The Bright Spot has a variety of social activities that can help you connect with other older adults.