Senior loneliness is a global threat. This defender campaigns for a local solution

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A woman wearing a gray blazer sits at a table in a meeting room.
Newfoundland and Labrador, which has one of the fastest growing senior populations in the country, seniors’ rights advocate Susan Walsh says structural change is needed to combat loneliness. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Lend a hand and look out for each other, even in the most difficult times.

These characteristics are intertwined with the collective fabric of Newfoundland and Labrador, says Susan Walsh, an advocate for seniors in the province.

Given one of the fastest growing senior populations in the country, this type of spirit needs to be reinvigorated to help solve a problem many older adults face: loneliness.

But it goes beyond the individual: serious structural changes are also needed, she says.

“We absolutely need to be leaders in solving these problems,” Walsh said.

According to Statistics Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador leads the country in the number of people aged 65 and over per capita, with almost half of the province’s population aged 50 and over.

Walsh says a National Institute on Aging study released last December found that 58 per cent of seniors have experienced loneliness, but 41 per cent of Canadians aged 50 and older are at risk.

In November, the World Health Organization designated it a global public health problem.

It’s a complex issue, one that hasn’t always been top of mind, but one that the Office of Senior Citizen Advocacy is researching, Walsh says.

For example, the office discovered that loneliness and isolation don’t always go hand in hand. Loneliness is a problem for many people living in nursing homes, and some research suggests that older people feel less lonely when they live in their own homes, she says.

What the office also discovered is that poverty is part of the loneliness problem.

Loneliness and poverty

Walsh released a report in November titled “What Golden Years?” ”, which includes the perspectives of more than 1,000 seniors in the province. About a third of these seniors said they could not afford to support themselves.

Of that 32 percent, she said, 60 percent of those seniors said they couldn’t attend social events. This is the highest-rated item that seniors in this subset report not having, Walsh said, even compared to things like medical supplies and special dietary needs.

“A lot of people see it as a nicety or a plus,” she said. “It’s not.”

Listen | The Signal’s Adam Walsh asks seniors’ rights advocate Susan Walsh what needs to be done to combat loneliness in the province:

The signal50:18Susan Walsh, Elderly Advocate

On today’s show, Adam Walsh speaks with the province’s seniors advocate about the systemic changes needed to help seniors facing isolation and loneliness. He also speaks with Susan Walsh about her tenure, the work she does and misconceptions about the position.

Older people living in poverty often have to make decisions, for example, between paying for home care or for food, Walsh said. What happens is they become more isolated and withdrawn, relying only on themselves.

What also happens is that because some seniors can no longer afford their homes, they have to move into personal care homes or other living arrangements, which can push them away from their community and their social ties.

“They built this province and they had the families that kept the population going,” Walsh said. “And then here we are today, just above the poverty line. It’s so sad. It’s ridiculous, actually.”

Structural solutions

To combat loneliness, Walsh says there needs to be more public awareness of the problem. She says the seniors’ advocacy office is working with the Canadian Coalition for Seniors’ Mental Health, which is trying to develop clinical guidelines on how to assess and recognize the signs and symptoms of loneliness .

“So we’re on the cusp, nationally, of having these guidelines for people to use,” she said. “This is all very new.”

The province should also continue to develop age-friendly communities, she said, places where citizens can thrive and participate, regardless of their age.

In 2007, she said, Clarenville participated in a national trial to implement age-friendly communities. The town still has its designation and other communities in the province are also working on it.

What makes a community “age-friendly,” she says, includes things like designing infrastructure like common walkways accessible to people using walkers or wheelchairs, and ensuring older citizens are invited to participate in social events and work or volunteer opportunities. .

WATCH | NL Elders share an intimate insight into what it means to be alone:

These seniors did not expect to feel loneliness in their later years. Now that’s all they know

For seniors whose spouse has died and children have moved away, the golden years can leave them feeling empty and alone. CBC News spoke to seniors struggling with loneliness about what it feels like and how difficult it can be.

In an emailed statement, Children, Seniors and Social Development Minister Paul Pike Pike said the government was working to create more age-friendly communities.

He also said the government would publish a “dedicated plan focused on the needs of older people” in the “near future”, which will complement the recommendations of the Health Accord and the Older People’s Advocate report.

Although the province presents challenges in terms of geography and a sparse rural population, Walsh says transportation is also key to combating loneliness.

Pike said in an emailed statement that the provincial government and the City of St. John’s have provided free bus passes to low-income seniors, but Walsh says it would be beneficial for Metrobus to offer its services free of charge to all elderly people.

“If there are things that you can participate in, if you can’t go out and do it, then by virtue of that you’re already isolated,” Walsh said.

“And you know, isolation can lead to loneliness.”

Areas not served by Metrobus should apply for grants, such as the provincial government’s Senior-Friendly Community Transportation program, which provides a subsidy to communities who can use the money to purchase transportation such as a bus or a minivan.

The community would need, among other requirements, to have a community organization and volunteers to drive the transport vehicle. Walsh says she would like to see the provincial government devote more resources to the program and see more communities commit to becoming age-friendly.

Although the research on loneliness is relatively new, there are solutions, but it is a joint effort that Walsh says requires structural change, collective will and an invigoration of Earth’s friendly spirit. New and Labrador.

“We’re used to hard times, so we took care of each other, we help each other. And I think that unfortunately it’s changing a little bit, but we have to get back to it,” she said.

“It’s not just local government, provincial government or federal government. We all have a role to play.”

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