News and Articles

Promoting social connectedness in our National Seniors Strategy

caregiver
CARP, 2014
Article
November 4, 2016

Senior citizens (aged 65+) are the fastest-growing demographic in the country. For the first time, more Canadians are over the age of 65 than under the age of 15. In Ontario alone, 38.5% of the population are considered senior citizens. This “coming of age” should be recognized as a true achievement – a testament to the medical and lifestyle advances of the last century. Yet, this fast, maturing population brings a number of societal challenges with it. As a result of Canada’s large aging population, researchers and government officials have joined a number of countries in designing a strategy for the wellbeing and engagement of its senior citizens.

There are many challenges facing governments, public and private sector organizations as they respond and adapt to an aging population. A greater number of senior citizens may lead to higher public health care spending, and governments will need to provide better support to caregivers and nurses. Community infrastructure will also be affected by an aging population, as housing, transportation and accessibility factors will need to be re-examined. The growth may even take a toll on the intergenerational family relationship, as the “sandwich generation” – those providing care to both children and parents at the same time – feel increased pressure and stress in response to social duties.

Perhaps, though, one of the most important factors to bear in mind when considering the social and economic consequences of aging in Canada is the need for community engagement and social connectedness among seniors. Those over 65 are often retired, finding themselves without a work community, and may have also lost friends or spouses because of death and illness. Family members may not live close by, and depending on their living arrangement, opportunities for social connections may not be easily available. These factors have a direct impact on mental health, and we have learned through SocialConnectedness.org that a strong community plays a fundamental role in human wellbeing.

Not only is social connection important for the emotional well-being of senior citizens, but it can also be beneficial to their physical health. The Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Centre in Chicago published a study which found seniors who were highly social had a 70% lower rate of cognitive decline (dementia and alzheimer’s) than their less social peers. Social connectedness in seniors even has a direct, positive influence on health-seeking behaviour: Epidemiologist Yvonne Michael from Drexel University found that in neighbourhoods with a strong sense of community and friendship, adults were 10-22% more likely to undergo cancer screenings – which could ultimately lead to early detection and treatment.

As a result of these issues, a comprehensive National Seniors Strategy in Canada is vital in ensuring the overall well-being of our aging population. The Strategy is “conceived as a way to provide an evidence-based view on how to consider the concepts that could and should be considered and included in a national approach.”

The Strategy’s inclusion of an Age-Friendly Cities and Communities (AFC) policy brief – as advanced by the World Health Organization (WHO) – promotes inclusion and contribution to community life. As more seniors decide to remain in their homes (“aging-in-place”), an AFC plan will “encourage active aging by optimizing opportunities for health, participation, and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age.” For example, an effective AFC is designed so that seniors are easily able to partake in accessible activities, such as visiting cultural institutions, taking courses or volunteering.  To date, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has provided funding towards developing AFCs across the country.

The official National Seniors Strategy 2016 report also highlights the problem of social isolation in seniors: across the country, we have become less likely to live in traditional intergenerational homes, and less likely to participate in church social groups. In fact, according to a recent Canadian Healthy Aging Survey, 27% of elderly Ontarian respondents reported that they were socially disconnected, with 17% saying they felt isolated. The Strategy report presents some evidential reasons for social isolation in Canadian seniors and makes clear some options for addressing the problem, including improving national awareness tactics.

A National Seniors Strategy is an effective way to gather the latest evidence and concerns surrounding Canada’s aging population, compare it with the strategies of other countries, and make government- and public sector-level recommendations for handling the social and economic consequences of this fast growing demographic. The Strategy is fully aware of the importance of social inclusion and connectedness in Canada’s senior citizens. It is imperative that this group live out the rest of their lives in a country that actively works to not only promote but develop community involvement and human connection. For more on the National Seniors Strategy, visit http://www.nationalseniorsstrategy.ca/.