Human beings are social creatures. It is often the relationships we have with each other that give life meaning and purpose. As John Donne famously wrote in 1624, "No man is an island, entire of itself." Simply put, we need each other.
Think of the last time something really great happened. Did you share it with someone? What about your last birthday... did you celebrate with family and friends? For most of us the answer is yes. But as we age, our network of family and friends starts to shrink, leaving us vulnerable to social isolation and depression. And because no man or woman is an island, loneliness can be detrimental to your mental health and well-being.
Seniors aged 65 and older consistently rank family and friendship second only to health as the most important things in life. Feeling connected makes us feel loved and valued and this in turn has a positive effect on our health. But with life comes inevitable change, and these transitions can be difficult for anyone. Children leave the nest, loved ones and friends eventually pass away, leaving behind a void in a once full life.
Approximately 50 per cent of people over the age of 80 reported feeling lonely. It's important to differentiate between being alone and being lonely. Some folks like living alone and still feel connected to the community at large; perhaps through a church group or senior centre. Loneliness is something far different. It's subjective - it's a feeling of deep seated unhappiness that stems from a lack of close, meaningful relationships that can become pervasive. Loneliness can be a side-effect of social isolation.
So who is most at risk of being socially isolated? A 2014 study from Canada's National Seniors Council reported a variety of risk factors including: living alone, being age 80 or older, having multiple chronic conditions that may limit social outings, no contact with family, and low-income status. The death of a spouse and losing a driver's license can also increase the likelihood of becoming socially isolated. Furthermore, the report provided some insight into how isolation can affect your mental health, "social isolation also affects the psychological and cognitive health of seniors. It is associated with higher levels of depression. According to research, 1 in 4 seniors lives with a mental health problem."
If you are at risk, some strategies for rebuilding a social network may include reaching out to your local senior centre. Most centres have a wealth of programming designed to keep older adults engaged and connected. A recent study from the Columbia Institute in Vancouver found that senior centres play a key role in keeping older adults independent and healthy. "These centres are absolutely essential in dealing with social isolation, which is a key issue for seniors wanting to live long and healthy lives," said Charlie Beresford, the executive director of the institute. There are opportunities to make connections through book clubs, exercise and meal programs, dance classes, drop-in evening and much more.
Victoria Lifeline works with senior programs to provide their medical alarm service in over 350 communities in Manitoba and as such, they realized how vital and necessary these organizations are to the well-being of older adults. In recognition of the great work they do, Victoria Lifeline started a health promotion grant program about ten years ago. The grants are available to senior service organizations in Manitoba to engage participants in healthy living activities, including mental health programming.
In 2017, Victoria Lifeline provided a grant to Men's Sheds, an informal club where men gather and work together on projects in an effort to combat social isolation in retirement. While men of all ages are welcome, more often than not it's older men who seek out the easy-going camaraderie the group dynamic provides. Doug Mackie, Chair of the Canadian Men's Shed Association, said there are 21 Men's Sheds across Canada, and he has seen first-hand how beneficial this model can be for the emotional well-being of men, "when they first come to Men's Sheds, there is always anxiety. Then we hand them something to do, maybe a woodworking project or activity, and they relax and start talking. Men will open up if they are sitting side by side, shoulder to shoulder." And in turn, Doug said, they might open up about a health issue they are dealing with or anything else they aren't normally comfortable talking about.
The group likes the idea of paying it forward, so they often work on projects that benefit other community members as well. "We've built raised garden beds for a Winnipeg school, cedar picnic tables, and carved walking canes for stroke recovery patients." Working together builds trust, Doug said, and lasting friendships. It also keeps members very busy. "We've even had a few wives send their husbands here after they retire just to get them out of the house!"
If you'd like more information on Men's Sheds, please email Doug.
To find a senior centre near you, visit the Manitoba Association of Senior Centres.
Social Isolation & Mental Health - Why It's So Important To Stay Connected
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