The benefits of eating together

Imagine there was one simple thing you could do to ensure your kids ate less junk food and got better grades, your parents stayed healthier longer and you felt less stressed. Sounds like magic, right? Actually, it’s something a bit more commonplace than that: dinner.

Though researchers aren’t sure exactly why it works, several studies have found a connection between eating a meal together and our physical and mental health. The advantages seem particularly strong for kids, who benefit from seeing healthy eating habits and positive communication modelled at the dinner table, but, according to Twyla Nichols, the coordinator of YWCA Halifax’s Food First program, we all stand to gain something when we make time to eat together. “When you sit down and eat, you’re relaxing,” she notes. “You slow down.”

This is especially true for seniors, who tend to be at a higher risk for social isolation. Communal meals help by taking the focus off eating and placing it on conversation, community and enjoyment.

Nichols has seen some of the benefits firsthand. She hosts a Food First program complete with a free lunch at YWCA Halifax every other week for around a dozen women. It’s open to all ages, but is mainly attended by seniors. Nichols says that without the communal meal, many of these women would likely be lonely, which can have a serious impact on mental health. “A lot of them are also widows, so if they didn’t have that type of thing to do, they would be alone,” she says. (Many are also low-income, which is why she also puts together a monthly calendar with food-related activities ranging from a trip to the food bank to farmers’ market visits.)

But for most of the women in the group, the biggest benefit is social. Many have developed lasting friendships, Nichols says, which makes breaking bread together all the more important.

Learn more about how food security affects all Canadians on the Food Secure Canada website. If you or someone you know is struggling with food security, visit Food Banks Canada to find one near you. If you’d like to help serve a community meal, volunteer to prepare and serve a meal at your local homeless shelter.

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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Ask the Expert: Why keeping seniors social matters

karenkobayashi

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.

dsc_8462

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.

dsc_5551

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.

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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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Golden years? A growing demographic with growing challenges

June is Seniors’ Month in Ontario. Across the country, individuals aged 65 and over represent one of the fastest growing segments of our population. But with growth, comes challenges for many individuals in their so-called “golden years.”

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A  Statistics Canada survey revealed nearly 20% of seniors aged 65 or over felt left out, isolated from others, or that they lacked companionship.

Social isolation isn’t just about loneliness. It also touches many other areas of seniors’ lives, including active participation, healthy aging, care giving and transportation, according to research conducted by the Government of Canada’s National Seniors Council. Elderly individuals who are isolated are also more likely to experience depression and are more vulnerable to elder abuse.

The societal, economic and health consequences of seniors’ isolation are simply too large to ignore. By 2017—for the first time ever—there will be more Ontarians over 65-years-old than those under 15. The number of seniors in our province is also expected to more than double by 2036.

Tackling this important issue starts at home—and in the community. Last year, United Way Toronto & York Region invested more than $4.7 million in support for seniors in Toronto ranging from home visits and meals-on-wheels to community dining and fitness classes.

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It’s supports and services like these that we know play an important role in increasing the health and wellbeing of this vulnerable population. One example? Programming through Community & Home Assistance to Seniors (CHATS), a United Way agency that provides culturally-specific activities for seniors including exercise, dancing, games and much-needed socialization.

“I used to sit at home alone,” says Mohammad Hassan, 99, who accessed CHATS services after experiencing depression following his wife’s passing. “Now, I look forward to attending the program each week. It’s because of the friendships I’ve made here that I’m still alive.”

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Mohammad Hassan (front centre) with some of the friends he’s made at a cultural program for seniors.

Another way to stave off social isolation among seniors?  Engage them as active volunteers in their communities.  According to Volunteer Canada, seniors who volunteer have reduced stress-related illnesses, higher self-esteem and are less likely to feel isolated.

evelynFor 98-year-old Evelyn, the opportunity to volunteer alongside her peers at the Bernard Betel Centre helped her cope with the death of her husband while allowing her to give back to her community at the same time. The centre, which offers everything from wellness clinics to computer classes for seniors, relies on the support of more than 400 volunteers—both young and old—to operate.

When concerned individuals of all ages come together to address the issue of seniors’ isolation, we also build stronger communities as a result. That’s why it’s up to all of us to ensure the “golden years” really do live up to their promise for our region’s elderly individuals.

Why dignified access to food matters

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The Boultbee Share program serves up food, and friendship, to residents in need

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Which means many of us will be gathering with family and friends to share a meal and to express gratitude for the many good things in our lives.

But for the more than half a million people living in poverty in our city, Thanksgiving is a stark reminder of the many barriers they face in getting the food they need.

The rising cost of living in our city means many people can’t afford healthy food after they pay their monthly bills and rent. Residents who live in the city’s “tower” neighbourhoods—high-rise communities in Toronto’s inner suburbs—face even greater challenges when it comes to accessing much-needed food, including a scarcity of healthy grocery stores and limited mobility.

Despite nearly one million visits to food banks in Toronto last year, 40% of adults and 20% of children still went hungry at least one-day-a-week. For many individuals living on a low-income—including single parents and seniors—even getting to a food bank can be difficult. Once they’re there, many feel embarrassed asking for help.

Food security is about more than just access to food,” says Kerry Bowser, executive director of Eastview Neighbourhood Community Centre , a United Way Toronto-supported agency. “It’s about choice and dignity. Being able to make decisions for yourself and your family when it comes to something that’s a basic necessity of life.”

“When I go to the grocery store, the produce manager doesn’t tell me what to buy because he thinks it’s what I need. I get to make those choices myself. I think food security, wherever possible, should invite individuals to share in basic decision-making,” adds Bowser.

An innovative food-sharing program facilitated by Eastview aims to serve up healthy staples—and dignity—at the same time. Every two weeks, residents from a community housing building in Toronto’s east end distribute donated food to other residents in the familiar setting of their apartment’s shared common room. “People feel more comfortable accepting help when it’s from someone they know,” says Pam MacKeigan, a longtime recipient and volunteer with the “Boultbee Share” program.

“Our job is to be the conduit. To get food to the community so they can take ownership of delivering food amongst themselves,” says Bowser. “They know better than anyone else what the particular needs of the residents are. They truly take ownership of the food for those who need it the most. And they know what that need is because it’s in their own living room.”