After spending nearly two years indoors due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s no surprise that millions of Canadians came out the other side feeling lonely, isolated and anxious. A survey by Statistics Canada in mid-2021 found that more than 40 percent of Canadians feel lonely some or all of the time, with the problem worst, as one might imagine, among single people and those who live alone. Concern over social isolation and the related mental health challenges resulting from quarantine were widespread during the pandemic. Canadians reported heightened anxiety and feelings of loneliness as the ordeal went on and psychiatrists regularly warned of its dire consequences.
And while it may be tempting to simply blame the pandemic for this tsunami of social dysfunction, experts were fretting about a “loneliness epidemic” and its effects long before public health officers forced isolation upon us. It’s not just that it’s a drag to feel lonely; the effects can be catastrophic for your health. Loneliness is associated with numerous unhealthy behaviours like smoking and physical inactivity, worrisome symptoms such as poor sleep and with a long list of ailments and conditions from high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease to a weakened immune system.
One study found the risk of premature death from social isolation was greater than that from obesity, which is scary in itself, since obesity increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. That paper’s lead author, Brigham Young University psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lundstad, is also responsible for the now-famous contention that experiencing loneliness and social isolation has the same health effect as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. While the scale of Holt-Lunstad’s claims has since been disputed, no one disputes her broader point that loneliness and isolation are bad for your health.
For older Canadians, these risks are particularly acute. According to the National Institute on Ageing (NIA), a think-tank at Toronto Metropolitan (formerly Ryerson) University, social isolation has been linked to poorer cognitive function and a 50 percent higher risk of dementia, not to mention a significantly higher risk of stroke, heart disease and cancer mortality. It can increase anxiety and depression, and a study showed that Canadians in 2020 were more likely to think suicidal thoughts if they experienced loneliness.
Loneliness is by no means confined to the elderly. The 2021 Statistics Canada survey found nearly one in every four young people aged 15-24 said they always or often felt lonely, a rate higher than other age groups and a finding matched in other countries as well. It’s not uncommon for the young to feel alone, of course – they are often leaving home for the first time – but there’s more to it than that. Young people are not only getting married later, they are having more trouble finding friends and romantic partners. More than half of Americans aged 18-34 don’t have a steady boyfriend or girlfriend, up from 33 percent in 2004, and 30 percent have no best friend. The age of first marriage and first sexual experience is getting later, and Millennials and Gen-Zers are less likely to be sexually active than the generations that went before.
All this despite the social media and dating apps that would seem to make social interaction easier than ever. In fact, technology may well be part of the problem. Researchers attest that social media make many young people feel isolated and left out, giving the impression that others are living better lives. Further, technology can prevent people from seeking out real-life interactions. A U.K. study in 2018 that found young people experienced loneliness more often, and more intensely, than other age groups, also found that those who feel lonely are those with more “online only” friends.
Loneliness is bad for business too. A recent poll in the U.S. commissioned by Cigna, a global health services company, found that lonely employees confessed to being less productive and missed more than five additional days per year due to stress than their presumably socially engaged and family-oriented counterparts, leading to billions of dollars in lost productivity.
With the stakes this high, it seems natural to demand that something be done. But what? Among public health officials, the inclination is to call for government action. And politicians are happy to oblige; after all, being seen to take action is what they do best. In 2018 the U.K. appointed its first Minister for Loneliness with great fanfare. (Of course, such a minister ought to insist that they be against loneliness, rather than for it.) Japan followed suit three years later. Australia and New Zealand also have national loneliness-reduction strategies. China has gone so far as to pass a law requiring that adult children visit their aging parents regularly.
And of course, it is happening in Canada as well. Last summer, the NIA released the report Understanding Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Older Canadians and How to Address It. The accompanying news release claimed “Canada is at growing risk of a loneliness crisis” and called for a “national strategy to enhance social connections for Canadians as they age.” Such a national strategy would in practice presumably be modelled on the myriad of other national strategies in Canada to combat everything from dementia to vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure to radicalized violence. According to the NIA, a national loneliness strategy would raise public awareness, gather data and fund programs meant to address the issue.
But is loneliness really the sort of thing a national-strategy wielding government can solve?
Smaller Families and a Fraying Social Fabric
Loneliness is very much a modern phenomenon, as it is largely a function of how we live today. Before 1800, the word was not even in regular use in the English language. Western culture was less individualistic by necessity before the Industrial Revolution and a web of inter-dependence comprising numerous critical human relationships was essential to survival. Families were generally much larger and, hence, extended families were larger still. Most people lived in villages or on farms where they knew almost everyone around them. And even if all your many loved ones died, it was generally understood that you were still in God’s company.
In recent decades, everything from the decline in religious observance to the rise of social media has been blamed for the spread of loneliness. Definitionally, loneliness is a subjective state – the way you feel – while social isolation is a function of the number and frequency of your family and social connections and the frequency, nature and intensity of your interactions with society. They are very much related, of course, and the terms are largely used interchangeably. Indeed, more Canadians are living alone than ever before: 4.4 million in 2021, more than double the 1.7 million of 1981. Marriage rates are also on a decades-long decline, families are getting even smaller and children don’t reliably provide the company and comfort they once did.
“We’re all at risk of becoming lonely and isolated,” says Samir Sinha, co-chair of the NIA, which produced the national strategy report, and director of geriatrics at Toronto’s Sinai Health System. The change in family connectedness and its effect on isolation is something he knows first-hand. “My parents are both aging in Winnipeg,” Sinha observes in an interview. “They had two sons, one who happens to be living in Toronto, the other one happens to be living in Baltimore. So my parents don’t have an older traditional situation where the kids and the family all live close together in the same community.”
Many of the other social and cultural ties that once brought people together have also frayed. Volunteer work and membership in service clubs like the Lions have declined (while some organizations have folded altogether), TV screens have kept people cocooned and proliferating streaming apps mean no one really needs to go out to see the movies anymore. Researchers have found that the more time you spend on Facebook, the lonelier you feel – and that some social media platforms are even worse.
The added strain that loneliness and isolation are putting on the health-care system, says Sinha, warrants government intervention. The NIA report notes that loneliness is associated with more frequent trips to the doctor and increased use of outpatient services. It also cites a Canadian study reporting that 49 percent of older people who called emergency medical services more than five times per year were experiencing “significant loneliness.”
Connected Communities, the 2017 annual report of Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said that people with a “weak sense of community belonging are more likely to be in the top five per cent of users of health care services; this five per cent accounts for more than 50 per cent of total health care spending.” Of course, correlation does not prove causation. Not all lonely sick people are sick because they are lonely; their loneliness might have been caused by an ailment that isolated them from previous connections. Still, these statistics and associations seem worrisome.
In a publicly funded health-care system like Canada’s, argues Sinha, government and taxpayers have a vested interest in intervening in the health and lives of their fellow citizens. “When you make an upstream investment that prevents an issue from becoming a bigger burden on the state, it’s a good use of your dollars,” he suggests. “This is why major governments like the U.K., Japan, New Zealand, and Australia created entire national strategies to deal with this.”
As for complaints that much of the recent outbreak of loneliness was actually caused by government policies, such as Covid-19 lockdowns and other draconian public health policies, Sinha retorts bluntly, “There’s no point combating loneliness and isolation if the patient is dead.” Maybe so, but the mental damage wrought by government-enforced loneliness was rarely considered in the darkest days of the pandemic.
A New National Strategy to Go with all the Other Ones
National loneliness strategies in other countries generally consist of public awareness campaigns and other efforts to hand out money to non-profit organizations, health associations, community groups and other government agencies to fund programs to help people socialize. When Britain first introduced its Ministry for Loneliness, doctors were encouraged to “prescribe” social outings like cooking classes and walking groups to lonely citizens.
In 2018, the ministry set aside nearly 20 million pounds for community groups and charities for various loneliness-busting programs meant to “transform the lives of thousands of lonely people across England.” To this end, government paid for programs to train young people in the town of Stainforth to help the elderly figure out the internet, funded the construction of an online community events calendar and a site meant to match Millennials needing affordable accommodation with seniors who have a spare room to let.
Sinha’s NIA report makes much of campaigns like “The Great Wirral Door Knock,” another government-funded activity which began in the borough of Wirral in northwest England and sees volunteers knock on the front door of anyone suspected of being lonely to hand out information on local activities and community organizations. Australia similarly has a “Community Visitors Scheme” that funds local organizations to recruit volunteers to check up on seniors receiving government support. And without the benefit of any national strategy, the U.S. government funds a “Senior Corps” whose members get US$2.65 per hour to “facilitate social connections.”
As worthy as these initiatives may sound, most predate official government concern for the subject. The highly touted Wirral door-knocking program, for example, is run by AgeUK and was active before British politicians decided to get into the act. And while AgeUK no doubt appreciates getting a cheque for its efforts, the entire premise of a government-funded loneliness strategy depends on privately-created groups like AgeUK existing in the first place. Sinha admits that it is mostly religious and community groups that tend to benefit from government-sponsored loneliness handouts.
It also appears political interest in this area may be fickle. Given Britain’s never-ending political upheavals, the loneliness portfolio is now on its third minister since 2018. The latest is Diana Barran, the not-very-lonely-sounding Baroness of Bathwich, a member of the House of Lords, former hedge fund manager and married mother of four. Evidence of the government’s efforts in “transforming the lives of thousands of lonely people” is getting ever-harder to find as the funds allocated to the Baroness’ efforts shrink.
Canada too has been making publicly-funded efforts to tackle social isolation, most notably through a grant-focused effort called the New Horizons for Seniors Program that doles money out to non-profits, community organizations, health associations and many other such groups. Founded in 2004, it has funded some 23,000 projects since then, everything from drop-in centres to social events to training volunteers to visit seniors. Among these are the CareDove project in Hamilton, Ontario, an online portal to provide information on services available to older adults, the Allies in Aging program in Vancouver, which ran “several events and workshops,” and the Caregivers Collective in Montreal, which offered a drop-in respite program and a “social collaborative” app.
In its 2019 budget, Ottawa sent another $100 million to the New Horizons program meant to stretch for five years, and threw in $20 million more in the 2022 budget. Provincial governments fund programs as well, the NIA notes, such as Ontario’s Seniors Community Grant Program.
What about Family and Traditional Institutions?
With all that in place, plus all the effort expended years before Covid-19 even came along, but with so many still saying they’re lonely, can yet another “national strategy” really make a difference? Ray Pennings is the Executive Vice President and co-founder of Cardus, a conservative think-tank based in Hamilton. In 2019 Cardus worked with the Angus Reid Institute on a study that found that 47 per cent of Canadians often feel lonely and wish they had more human contact, and that 62 per cent would like their friends and family to spend more time with them. The study can be considered notable for the fact that it did not call for a national strategy to solve the problem.
In an interview, Pennings says he accepts that social isolation can have health and other negative effects. The Angus Reid study found, for example, that one-third of Canadian have no friend or family member they can turn to for financial help in an emergency. Pennings regards the flourishing payday loan industry as further evidence of a society in which people find themselves alone without a supporting community. Pointing to the Edelman Trust Barometer, Pennings sees social isolation driving a decline of faith in governments and institutions: “Trust comes from experience and involvement.”
Pennings says he understands why people look to government for solutions, but thinks government ought to be “very conscious of the impact of other institutions in society.” The Angus Reid study found that Canadians who are more religiously active are less likely to feel social isolation, and Pennings highlights the role played by family, faith and, to a lesser extent, community groups.
For a stark lesson in excess government intrusion in the matter, there’s Communist China’s Filial Piety Law. With rapid urbanization and the legacy of its one-child policy leaving many older Chinese without family support, a decade ago the country began requiring adult children to visit their parents regularly and attend to their “spiritual needs.” Enforcement has proved difficult, however, since it relies on parents launching lawsuits against their children, which many are reluctant to do. More than 60 percent of such cases were either withdrawn or settled by mediation before trial. Shanghai’s municipal government increased the pressure with a mandate for parental support that punishes offenders by publicly naming them and reducing their financial credit rating.
There is a certain and, for some, probably downright bitter irony in looking to government to solve the problem of social isolation. As mentioned earlier, governments greatly exacerbated loneliness and isolation through their “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (masking, distancing and lockdowns) beginning in March 2020 – which, it should always be pointed out, were more extreme than most international standards. Ontario’s former Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, whose 2017 annual report decried the effects of loneliness, also supported mandatory loneliness and prohibitions on normal social interactions during Covid-19. Who is going to trust government to fix a problem it created?
Whatever one may think of how governments handled the pandemic, that nightmare is now mercifully in the rear-view mirror. Pennings believes Canadians acting as private individuals would do well to take greater personal responsibility for breaking out of their own social isolation and helping others do the same. The Angus Reid report also points out that fewer than one in every five Canadians who say they know someone who is lonely makes a point of visiting them. “We all have a neighbour. Yet only 55 percent of us have engaged with our neighbour in the last month,” says Pennings. “So it starts very close to home.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist and co-author of the 2021 study Loneliness in America. “We need to return to an idea that was central to our founding and is at the heart of many great religious traditions: We have commitments to ourselves, but we also have vital commitments to each other, including to those who are vulnerable,” Weissbourd’s report states. He calls the need to take action on loneliness “a moral matter in terms of our community health.” This fixation on community, rather than government, should be considered key.
It is possible that gathering more data on loneliness in Canada could offer a useful role for government. Perhaps there is also a part to be played in making the public more aware of the problem. And no doubt community groups enjoy receiving government loneliness grants. But it remains necessary that these community groups exist prior to any government cheque arriving. And it also remains indisputable that no government can ever find you a friend, make you want to visit mom and dad, or cheer you up when you’re feeling down.
Building connections with others remains a personal task facilitated by broader social connections. Fighting loneliness is thus an obligation we all share – and often a joy we share too. While it may be possible to “connect” to society by making comments on social media from your one-bedroom apartment, such a life is unlikely to be fulfilling or filled with meaningful personal connection. “When you live life where almost everything starts with the pronoun ‘I’ instead of ‘we,’ you end up walking through life alone,” says Pennings. “When you live on the flipside, with your primary identity in a group with a set of relationships and of belonging, life’s challenges are taken on together.”
No government can make you care about your neighbour. Only a strong sense of community and belonging, built on a foundation of personal connections, can cure loneliness.
Aaron Nava is a freelance writer and communications advisor based in Toronto.
Source of main image: Shutterstock.