Toronto’s Aging Population Faces Increasing Social Isolation and Loneliness
Canada’s aging population is growing, but it continues to face increasing social isolation and loneliness, further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United Nations is concerned about healthy aging. Since the world’s population over 60 years will double by 2050, the aging demographic shift will change health outcomes, needs and values. The United Nations released Aging, Older Persons and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to address this issue, discussing healthy aging relating to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“Older persons must be recognized as the active agents of societal development in order to achieve truly transformative, inclusive and sustainable development outcomes,” the report stated.
People aged 60 and over comprise 12.3% of the global population. However, by 2030, it is estimated that older people will constitute over 25% of the population in Europe and North America, 17% in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and 6% in Africa. Similarly, in Canada, the proportion of seniors will increase from 16.9% to 21.0% between 2018 and 2028.
Healthy aging is intrinsically tied with SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being. As the elderly population grows, healthcare demands grow too.
A report released by The Conference Board of Canada in 2018, Meeting the Care Needs of Canada’s Aging Population, indicates that federal funding does not adequately address population aging. The federal health transfer of funds to provincial and territorial governments for health care through the Canada Health Transfer (CHT) does not keep up with increasing health costs primarily due to inflated drug prices and physician services. In addition, the federal health transfer increases at an average of 3.7% per year, but health care costs rise by 5.1% per year.
However, rising health care costs are not even the greatest concern faced by the aging population. Social isolation and loneliness loom over Canada’s elderly, exacerbating existing economic and social issues.
Organizations like Toronto’s Sunshine Centres for Seniors work towards circumventing barriers causing social isolation. According to Jessica Davis, the communications and volunteer manager, they aim to bring the community spirit to the elderly by providing social programs for seniors in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). They also host events at Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) buildings to decrease transportation costs and mobility difficulties.
“We have an emphasis on working with seniors who, in one way or another, might be more vulnerable.” The Sunshine Centres for Seniors focus on helping low-income seniors and those at a higher risk of social isolation.
During pre-pandemic times, Sunshine Centres ran events like coffee and tea socials in TCHC buildings. Davis said that, in 2009, they found that the issue of social isolation was very severe. When seniors passed away, no one would know.
“There’s the stereotype of all seniors being comfortably retired, and that’s not the case for a lot of seniors,” Davis said. Many elderly people, especially in Toronto, are facing neighbourhood gentrification. They are pushed further away from the hearts of communities where resources are most accessible. Davis added, “A lot of people are pushed out of the housing as well.”
A 2011 study on gentrification in Toronto’s Little Portugal found that gentrification raised housing costs, making it difficult for Portuguese people to live there. This also meant Portuguese seniors would be displaced from the familiarity of accessible Portuguese stores and services.
Davis also noted the need for specific programming for certain groups within the wider senior population. For example, social isolation among seniors may be more severe for LGBTQ+ seniors who experienced the AIDS crisis.
In addition, seniors with limited income or living in poverty have more economic concerns. “They face challenges around food insecurity,” Davis said. Not only do they struggle to purchase groceries, they also face barriers in connecting with others because social events typically cost money.
Other barriers resulting in social isolation are rooted in gender stereotypes. According to Davis, “it's been a struggle to reach men, particularly men outside of the LGBTQ community.” She said gender stereotypes around feelings and asking for help can create major challenges for elderly men in reaching out for social connections.
While the Sunshine Centres see more elderly women participating in their events, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that senior women are at a greater risk of poverty, poor health and reduced access to pensions. Thus, healthy aging intersects with SDG 5: Gender Equality. To support the empowerment of older women, the WHO advises that systems promoting equitable workforces and social pensions help raise the status of older women within households.
Senior newcomers to Canada are particularly affected by social isolation due to language barriers and a lack of culture-specific programming.
During the pandemic, Davis said that language-specific seniors’ programming like remote Bengali events was very popular. “We found that there’s a real need for that,” she said.
However, despite the greater reach of virtual activities which allowed for more participants, especially in Bengali events, the pandemic has generally resulted in more social isolation and loneliness.
“It’s definitely been a challenge keeping people connected with our regular programming,” Davis said. Seniors living in low-income buildings or without access to reliable technology are unable to participate in virtual activities. While Sunshine Centres try to keep in touch with the aging population through phone calls, Davis said there is a definite gap in connection and communication.
At a municipal level, Davis said there must be affordable transportation and physically accessible buildings, in line with SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, providing the elderly more agency in their lifestyle choices.
At an individual level, the attitude towards aging must change. “When we’re building things into communities, [we need to look] at that from the perspective of age because we are all going to age,” Davis said. Programs for the elderly should be designed to continue into the future since the population will always age. It is also necessary to recognize the diverse needs of elderly communities and have a variety of recreational programming to prevent social isolation.
“We’re all going to have to be a part of that at some point,” Davis said. “We need to make communities friendly in that generational sense.”