Ask the Expert: Why keeping seniors social matters

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Karen Kobayashi
Research Affiliate & Associate Professor,
University of Victoria’s Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health

Karen Kobayashi is a Research Affiliate at the University of Victoria’s Institute on Aging & Lifelong Health, a multidisciplinary research centre that focuses on the needs of our country’s aging population. Also an Associate Professor in the University of Victoria’s Department of Sociology, she’s a leading expert on the relationship between social isolation and health among older adults. Imagine a City spoke with Karen for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to learn about the importance of keeping seniors social.

1. Seniors are one of the fastest-growing populations across the country. What are some of the challenges that this dramatic growth brings?

When people reach their later years, we tend to see more significant changes in their physical and cognitive health, including problems with memory, language and judgment. An increase in the older population brings with it a greater need for supports for seniors. This doesn’t just mean improved access to health care. Programs and services to help seniors live independently and socialize—many of which are funded by United Way—are also extremely important.

2. Research tells us that nearly 20% of seniors feel isolated. What are some of the risk factors that may influence, or exacerbate, isolation?

There are quite a few risk factors that often lead to isolation. A newcomer might lack the language or cultural knowledge to develop social networks in their community. On the other hand, someone living in poverty might not have access to the transportation they need to get to important programs and services. A person’s physical health can also greatly limit their mobility, making it difficult to leave their home, while cognitive issues might make it next to impossible for others to communicate. Lastly, it might be surprising, but your gender is another important factor. In my research, we’ve discovered that men tend to have smaller social networks than women and as a result are more likely to experience isolation.

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3. What happens if we don’t address the growing issue of seniors’ isolation?

Social isolation is linked to poorer cognitive and physical health outcomes. This could mean an increase in mental health issues like depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality or accelerated cognitive decline. This is very much a public health issue—especially considering these outcomes are more likely to contribute to seniors getting sick more often and dying sooner.

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4. What are some of the best ways to address this important issue and what are the benefits?

Maintaining strong social networks is essential for keeping seniors healthy. This is often achieved through community-based programs that put social interaction and physical activities at the forefront. This ultimately allows people that have small social networks to create their own sense of community. Programs like exercise classes, home visits and art workshops are an excellent way to maintain social well-being, which leads to better cognitive, mental and physical health. For many seniors, this means an increase in happiness, less anxiety and less depression. United Way does a really great job of ensuring these important programs are accessible in communities that really need them—whether it’s a low-income neighbourhood, a rural or remote area or an ethnic enclave, a community with a high density of one ethnocultural group.

5. Why is seniors isolation an important social and health issue that affects everyone?

Healthy seniors contribute to healthy communities by bringing a sense of energy to a community and lending a hand in a variety of meaningful ways. One way is through volunteering. Not only can they donate their talents to helping the community at large, but they also play an important role in helping other seniors break free from isolation, too.

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