Are you aware of Senior Isolation?

Soon I will gather with family to celebrate Christmas, and I will get to see my grandma, my dad’s mom. Grandma is a woman whom I respect and appreciate more with every passing year. One of the things I find remarkable about Grandma is that she turned 95 this year, and she has amazing health and wellbeing compared to most people her age. I also appreciate that Grandma has avoided isolation, which is one of the reasons she has enjoyed good health to the age of 95.

Senior isolation contributes to health decline.  Photo by Chalmers Butterfield.

Senior isolation contributes to health decline. Photo by Chalmers Butterfield.

What made it possible for grandma to avoid isolation? I see two key things: grandma lives in a small town that meets some of the features of complete community; and grandma is fiercely determined to live out her purpose.

Grandma lives in a complete community. The Alberta Community Builders define a complete community as “somewhere people can live, work, and relax throughout their lifetime, without having to get in a car and drive somewhere else.” In Grandma’s complete community, I see that she has had transportation options, both driving and walking – it’s a small town, so a lot of her connection points are within walking distance. Because Grandma is mobile, she stays connected to her community. Grandma’s complete community also promotes health and wellness. The environment supports health, both because of its walkability, and because the community offers wellness activities that she enjoys, like yoga and floor curling. In addition to promoting health, community members have stepped in when Grandma has needed more support, so Grandma has been able to stay in her own home. This community, where Grandma has lived for nearly all her life, has supported her health and wellness in physical and social ways, and so has prevented isolation and the most common illnesses of aging.

Grandma is fiercely determined to live out her purpose. I see that Grandma has stubbornly chosen to create meaning and purpose when life threatened to send her into a spiral of depression. Like many seniors, Grandma has faced losses – like death of loved-ones, fading strength and resilience – that threatened to rob her mental wellbeing. In the face of loss, Grandma has created purpose by committing herself to serve others. I see her: baking and decorating cakes – her trade since retiring from the family farm; maintaining a garden in the summer, so she can share her abundance with family and friends; caring for the graveyard grounds alongside community members to honour the dead; and sharing her musical gifts by singing in the church choir. I see that Grandma has kept physically active by these pastimes with others, both because the pastimes themselves are active, and because she chooses additional fitness activities to maintain her strength and to continue doing the things she loves. Because of Grandma’s active life, she has supported the health of her heart and her mind, and she has maintained her core balance, which has prevented falls. All these elements create a cycle of positive feedback: to support her active lifestyle, Grandma has had to go out into community where she builds relationships; those relationships give Grandma purpose because she finds people to care for and to serve, which keeps her active.

Grandma has circumstances in and around her that promote self-care, but not everyone has that structure of support or that fierce sense of purpose. The Government of Canada’s Report on the Social Isolation of Seniors highlights how one thing can change to cause isolation, and that starts a downward spiral. For example, when Grandma loses her mobility, she will become more isolated, and it will impact her overall health. For example, if Grandma cannot get transportation to events, she will become cut-off from her community support network. If Grandma is at home all the time she won’t move enough to maintain strength, so she will stay home more and more because it takes a lot of physical effort to go out, and she will start to fear a fall. Fear of going out will make it harder for Grandma to get groceries, and she will have even fewer human connections. In this way Grandma will get even more cut-off from community, just when she needs more community support. When Grandma is lonely, she will risk depression, which will decrease her drive to care for herself with proper nutrition, or movement. Grandma’s wellbeing will get worse and worse over time because one loss started a series of consequences that lead into the next.

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I asked my dad to invite Grandma to celebrate Christmas this year even though it takes extra effort. I want to make sure to connect with Grandma during a celebration where family and community are important to her.

If you have a senior in your life, I encourage you to make time to connect with them over the Holiday Season, too. Ask them how they’re doing to let them know that you value their wellbeing, and find out if they have the supports they need to stay engaged in life – maybe the family needs to help them put supports in place. If you’re not sure how to ask your loved-one, or where to start addressing their needs, let’s have a conversation.

You Don’t Have to Journey Alone!

Kirstin Veugelers