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Attending church offsets risks of aging alone

After her husband died, Linda* downsized from her family home to a condo — more manageable for a woman in her 70s. Now in downtown Toronto, her kids are scattered around the city and province, though visits are spotty. After a fall and a broken hip, she found herself alone, unable to leave her condo for months. Few came to visit and her social circle shrank. Now she finds herself alone, the isolation starting to take its toll.

This could be the story of any number of widows in downtown Toronto, but the problem of social isolation exists right across Canada. A 2012 Statistics Canada study found that 20 percent of seniors did not participate in weekly or even monthly activities. This is, or ought to be, cause for concern.

How isolation affects our seniors
Social isolation is not the sole domain of the elderly, but it is uniquely prevalent in old age. A 2013 study by Andrew Steptoe at University College, London (U.K.) found that financial and mobility limitations, along with the death of friends and family, contributed to a decrease in the number of social contacts among seniors.

Statistics Canada predicts that between 2015 and 2021, the number of Canadians aged 65 and over will outnumber those 14 and under. That means fewer children and grandchildren to visit, let alone to help take care of aging loved ones.

Social isolation can have severe health consequences. Indeed, Mr. Steptoe found that social isolation was associated with long-standing illnesses such as chronic lung disease, arthritis, impaired mobility and “depressive symptoms.” As well, a 2012 study by professors at the University of California found that loneliness leads to a decline in the ability to carry out activities of daily living, as well as difficulty in achieving everyday tasks such as reaching for items in upper cupboards and stair climbing.

In extreme cases, social isolation can also be deadly. A 2010 review of studies of social isolation concluded that social isolation is as strong a factor in early death as alcohol consumption and smoking less than 15 cigarettes a day.

If we want our aging loved ones to live longer, healthier lives, then living in community with them is more of a necessity than many of us might have realized. The good news is that there are relatively simple ways to bring seniors into that community.

Building a sense of community
How would this woman’s life be different if she were part of a church? The Body of Christ has the unique ability to make seniors a normal part of the lives of children and young people insofar as multiple generations are joined in fellowship with him. Intergenerational interactions can be a normal part of church activities, where people of all ages gather.

Seniors in a congregation can join together to form their own groups, planning events and outings. Interested youth leaders can combine with such groups for teen and senior nights. (Bowling anyone?)

God’s command to love and respect our parents requires children to do what we can to help our parents age well. Where children move away or are few in number, the larger church community may need to share that responsibility. Something as simple as visiting someone who hasn’t been in church for a while could be vital in catching a person in the early stages of isolation as they age.

The church can also be a community builder for people in the wider community. Four churches in southern Ontario, for example, have been offering monthly spaghetti dinners in their communities for over a year. One such dinner has been happening in Richmond Hill, Ontario, at the McConaghy Seniors' Centre. Alice Mawhinney, a Richmond Hill resident, organizes these evenings with the goal of allowing “neighbours to get to know each other without cost being a limiting factor.” The location was chosen to allow for easy access, as it is close to the centre of Richmond Hill and is accessible by public transit.

Building community is best done at the grassroots level. These examples show that, on one hand, this isn’t rocket science. On the other hand, it does require the commitment of all involved to grow in and maintain community.

The church is uniquely gifted and positioned to battle social isolation. May God help us all to stretch ourselves as necessary to ensure that together, we take the call to do so seriously.

 *Names have been changed to protect privacy.

  • Derek Miedema is a researcher at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada. This article uses research from his recent report Growing old alone: The rise of social isolation as Canada ages.

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