Social Isolation, a Growing Epidemic

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom recently appointed one of her ministers, Tracey Crouch, to lead an inter-governmental group tasked with countering a growing epidemic of social isolation and loneliness.

The appointment was made in response to a report published by the Commission on Loneliness, set up to honor the late Jo Cox, a Labour MP who had campaigned about loneliness and was murdered by a right wing extremist in 2016.

In her announcement Prime Minister May said: “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.” and “I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones – people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

While social isolation and loneliness can affect individuals of any age, gender or circumstance it is perhaps more pronounced in our aging population. Life transitions such as retirement, death of a spouse, health and mobility issues increase the risk of social isolation in seniors and are a growing cause of concern in Canada.

The effects of loneliness can be pervasive and have a significant impact on both physical health and cognitive decline. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is quoted as saying loneliness is “comparable to the risk of smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day,” and “It exceeds the risk of alcohol consumption, it exceeds the risk of physical inactivity, obesity, and it exceeds the risk of air pollution.” (1)

The Report on Social Isolation of Seniors by the National Seniors Council – Canada states “Research also indicates that social isolation is a predictor of mortality from coronary heart disease/stroke” and that “studies show that the lack of a supportive social network is linked to a 60% increase in the risk of dementia and cognitive decline”. (2)

What can be done about this? While many levels of government are working to identify the complex causes to social isolation in our society and implement solutions, we also need to

start a conversation in our own communities to bring the issue to light. For too long a fear of social stigma has prevented individuals from admitting to loneliness and perhaps with an increased awareness of its prevalence many of our seniors will no longer suffer in silence.

Kim Leadbeater, Jo Cox’s sister, recently said “Jo was a doer, not a complainer. We want to continue that legacy by ridding society of loneliness one conversation at a time.” And Jo Cox herself said: “Loneliness doesn’t discriminate. But just as loneliness can affect any of us, so any of us can help to tackle it.”

We just need to start “one conversation at a time”.

by Candace Hartman