After two years of seemingly never-ending lockdowns and restrictions, many people are feeling the impacts of social isolation and loneliness — especially older Canadians.
Reverend Dianne Parker, a board member of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), said loneliness in seniors is nothing new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the issue to a new height.
“There’s a dual pandemic in our midst – social isolationism among the aging population was a pandemic long before the COVID pandemic,” said Parker, 75.
“The COVID pandemic has heightened, has escalated social isolation, but it also shone a light on it, that there’s a recognition that it’s been happening.
“We must not lose sight, and we must do something about it collectively as a community.”
A recent Canadian study using data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging indicates that more than 40 per cent of adults aged 50 or older experienced moderate to high levels of depressive symptoms at the beginning of the pandemic, which worsened as it continued.
It said older adults were twice as likely to have depressive symptoms during the pandemic as they were before the pandemic.
“Social participation and loneliness were identified as important risk factors for psychological well-being, and it is these factors that have been impacted during the pandemic, especially for older adults,” said the study, which was authored by a team of Canadian researchers, including one from Dalhousie University.
People who have lower incomes or are marginalized in other ways fared worse, the study noted.
Bill VanGorder, the senior spokesperson for CARP Nova Scotia, said social interaction is “key” for keeping elderly people active and able as they get older.
“And COVID has really cut that down severely for older Nova Scotians,” he said.
Currently in Nova Scotia, restrictions aren’t as tight as they were in the early days in the pandemic, even as the Omicron variant continues to spread. However, people living in long-term care have strict limits on visitors and can’t leave their facility except for a medical appointment or to go for a drive in a facility vehicle.
And other seniors are choosing to isolate themselves out of fear of catching the virus.
VanGorder, 78, said many seniors whose mental or physical health was in decline before COVID-19 are doing far worse now.
“We’ve had reports from some of our members that when they get back to visit their older relatives, for instance, in long-term care, they can see a very evident decline in their overall health,” he said, “and that begins with mental health.”
While many seniors have been embracing technology throughout the pandemic to keep in touch with loved ones – “it’s probably one of the only good things about COVID,” said VanGorder – he noted these technologies aren’t available for everyone.
As well, virtual communication just isn’t the same.
“There’s a huge difference between being able to talk on screen, like you and I are now, and having a real hug with people,” VanGorder said in a Zoom interview.
“I spoke to one of our senior members … and asked him what was the biggest thing he missed because of COVID, and his first answer was hugs.”
Seniors are also missing out on activities that keep them active in the community, such as singing in a choir.
“You just can’t replace those with online communication,” said VanGorder.
He said he thinks the restrictions are necessary to keep seniors – who are at a heightened risk from COVID – safe.
But still, elderly Nova Scotians are losing time they can’t get back. They aren’t as able to put their plans on hold like their younger counterparts, VanGorder said.
“When you’re 75, or 80, or 85 years old, and you’re talking about your plans for the future, you’re planning months away, not years away,” he said.
“The fact is, at that age you don’t know if in four or five years from now you’re going to be able to do it. So there’s a real disappointment that life can’t return and some of the activities can’t return more quickly.”
He said youth help lines have been in place for many years that have been “very successful,” and he would like to see something similar for seniors.
Calling for help
Charmaine Millaire, the communications and marketing manager at 211 Nova Scotia, said supports are there for seniors who need it.
211 is a free and confidential service that provides 24/7 information and referrals for Nova Scotians, including food support, community services and mental health support.
Millaire said the service has had an uptick in calls from seniors during the pandemic.
“A lot of seniors have been feeling isolated and lonely due to the ongoing restrictions that took course over the pandemic,” she said.
“(They) have had to isolate, they’ve had to stay away from family, from friends.”
Elderly residents who need help can call 211, where a community resource navigator can connect them to a service they need, or even just provide them with a listening ear, said Millaire.
“So if someone just wants to talk to them … they’re happy just to hear what people on the other line have to say and how they’re feeling, and then they can connect them with programs and services that can help them going forward,” she said.
Millaire added that 211 operates in more than 165 languages, noting that many seniors who are isolated may not use English.
In the meantime, VanGorder is asking people to continue to follow Public Health guidelines to keep those at most risk safe.
He said anyone with elderly loved ones should reach out to them in any way they can, even if it’s just online or over the phone.
“Some way to let them know that you’re still there, you still care and you still love them,” he said.