Loneliness is “a pressing health threat.” World Health Organization Stock photo

The epidemic of loneliness and how Ottawa is combatting it

by Olivia Barrett, Editorial Associate

Sunday 26 November 2023

The epidemic of loneliness and how Ottawa is combatting it

The issue of loneliness loomed in the background before the pandemic. It highlighted the gaps in social programming and community connections as people, especially vulnerable groups, going into social isolation.

According to a recent report by the Toronto Foundation, Toronto is one of the loneliest places in Canada. Residents of the city are interacting and volunteering less, highlighting a nearly decade-long decline in donations and social ties according to the report.

The report compares social trends from two time periods: from 2013-2018 and from 2018-2022. Some of these trends include volunteer rates and the number of close friends and family a person has, noting that all of these have dropped significantly after the pandemic.

This trend is not exclusive to Toronto.

A 2021 report by Statistics Canada found that more than one in 10 Canadians feel lonely some or all of the time, with women being particularly affected by loneliness. Almost twice as many women aged 15 to 24 reported feeling lonely compared to women aged 25 to 34. This sentiment is echoed in the Toronto Foundation report, which found that female students are uniquely vulnerable. They were more like to report poorer mental health, higher stress and serious psychological distress compared to male students.

Loneliness has become a global issue in the post-pandemic world, with the World Health Organization (WHO) calling it “a pressing health threat.” As a result of this, the WHO has created a Commission on Social Connection. This commission aims to find solutions to reducing social isolation and loneliness from “national policies to psychological interventions for individuals,” according to the commission’s website.

The effect of loneliness goes beyond just the feeling. The WHO commission’s website explains that loneliness and social isolation “can increase risk of cardiovascular disease by 30 per cent.” It puts individuals at a higher risk of ailments like stroke and dementia among many more.

The Toronto Foundation report explains that loneliness leads to higher levels of depression and anxiety. By mid-2023, approximately 19 per cent of the adult population in Toronto displayed symptoms that aligned with generalized anxiety disorder. Additionally, nearly a quarter of Torontonians reported symptoms of major depressive disorder.

Both of these numbers are unchanged from 2021, illustrating that the mental health crisis plaguing cities like Toronto are showing “no signs of improving,” the report states.

To combat these trends, the Toronto Foundation outlines a series of goals for the main concern areas: health, learning, arts and recreation, environment, work, getting around, safety, housing and income and wealth. These goals include lowering the rates of loneliness and depression by offering more support and resources, increasing affordability and increasing participation in social programs for vulnerable populations, like children and older Canadians.

Since the pandemic, many programs with these goals in mind have popped up around the country. HelpAge Canada created programs to support older Canadians, with a focus on those who face social and economic barriers, overcome social isolation. Their programs focus on helping seniors through four main areas: Seniors Can! Grants, digital literacy, Men’s Sheds and age-friendly transportation.

Organizations in Ottawa have followed suit and created similar programs to promote social interaction in the city.

The Ottawa Public Library partnered with Good Companions to create Seniors’ Centre Without Walls to connect older residents with younger adults through telephone-based programs along with several other programs and resources.

The Social Planning Council of Ottawa is another organization in the city that has a wide range of  programs for all ages. These programs include G7 Ottawa which brings together grassroots organizations in the city to provide services to address systemic discrimination. It also provides social programs for Black and racialized members of the Ottawa community.

Flo Seniors’ Network is another organization that promotes independence and well-being for older adults by providing resources like social activities, support groups and legal resources.

These organizations create these programs for social inclusion to enhance the overall health of Canadians. For seniors especially, being socially active is crucial for their health.–

Organizations providing services to combat loneliness or social isolation:

Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region Website: https://www.dcottawa.on.ca Contact: 613-238-3311

Flo Seniors Website: https://www.floseniors.com/ Contact: 613-292-3375

HelpAge Canada Website: https://helpagecanada.ca/canada/ Contact: [email protected]

The Council on Aging of Ottawa Website: https://coaottawa.ca/ Contact: 613-789-3577  | [email protected]

Social Planning Council of Ottawa Website: https://www.spcottawa.on.ca/ Contact: 613-236-9300  | [email protected]

Good Companions Website: https://thegoodcompanions.ca/ Contact: 613-236-0428  | [email protected]

Senior Women Living Together (SWLT) Shared living for senior women living alone https://www.swlt.ca

Counselling Connect Counselling Connect: Free Phone or Video Counselling