Recently I was delivering WrapAround Facilitator training in Altona, Manitoba. Altona is a lovely small rural community about an hour and a half south of Winnipeg, close to the US border.
There I came across a newspaper for seniors entitled Senior Scope: For Ages 50 to 100+. And the front-page headline of the current issue blared out, “What Can Be Done About ‘Loneliness’?”
The author noted that British Prime Minister Theresa May had just appointed a “Minister of Loneliness.” This is a new cabinet position in the British government. The appointment was not done flippantly: there are staggering and sobering statistics that support this decision. Did you know that loneliness is a greater predicter of early death than smoking or obesity?
This is not just a British phenomenon—the same dynamics are happening across the Western world, including Canada, with the same impacts on health.
In other words, a public health crisis is emerging in our midst, with all of the costs, both social and economic, that a public health crisis brings with it—and the cause is loneliness.
It is important, as psychologist Toby Rutner points out in the Senior Scope article, to distinguish between “being alone” and “loneliness.” Rutner states, “For some people being alone is paradise. They enjoy being by themselves, taking care of a pet, reading a book, going for a walk, and they do just fine.” But loneliness has to do with isolation, with losing connection. And alarmingly, isolation is reaching epidemic proportions today.
The health impacts of isolation are a sad confirmation of what neuroscience has been teaching us for the past 15 years, namely that, to survive as human beings, even at a physiological level, we need relationship just as much as we need water, oxygen and food.
Loneliness especially affects seniors. When a spouse dies, for example, or long-time friends pass away, seniors may experience sudden isolation and loneliness, often at a time when they most need supports around them.
What then might be some answers to the increase in isolation that some seniors may experience?
Shalem is trying out one possible answer. Recently we received a small grant from the Hamilton Community Foundation to begin a pilot program for WrapAround with Seniors in the Hamilton area. WrapAround builds positive social and community connections around people who are isolated, based on the WrapAround participant’s hopes and dreams, goals and strengths. Seniors can live longer in their own homes and can reduce unnecessary hospitalizations. WrapAround is a powerful and effective community-based response to seclusion.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the impacts of isolation among seniors, there is a bubbling up of interest in WrapAround with Seniors. Recently I presented about WrapAround with Seniors at a Local Health Integration Network (LHIN) Planning Table in Northumberland County, Ontario, and I spoke at the 30th anniversary celebration event of the Country Roads Community Health Centre in eastern Ontario—a Centre which has pioneered the use of WrapAround with Seniors, supported by Wrap Canada and Shalem. WrapAround can be at the leading edge of effective responses to this emerging public health crisis.
How do you, or will you, along with your community, respond to the loneliness and isolation experienced in your context? I’d be interested to hear—as together we seek to find real solutions that connect people, give people greater health, and have lasting impacts.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network