When my 97-year-old mother passed away in 2020, three weeks before the first Coronavirus enforced lockdown, we were able to celebrate her life with family and friends. Grief and gratitude for this woman who had given so much to everyone were present. We were fairly confident the virus wasn’t.
For our family, the passing of our matriarch was a shared experience that enriched our lives and brought us closer, not just with one another but with our many friends, most of whom had known our mum and loved her for her gentle ways and many kindnesses.
In the final two weeks of her life my mother was never alone, never without a loving presence sitting at her bedside, talking, reading, sharing, laughing, caring. Sometimes, friends dropped by to say hello, and good-bye. It was a loving, peaceful farewell made even more beautiful because we each knew that we belonged within the family circle my mother had woven and stitched and patched and repaired throughout her life.
For older adults, having a sense of belonging is vital to physical and mental health. Yet, too often, social isolation and loneliness shadow their days and nights, leaving them exposed to many diseases.
The CDC reports that “Although it’s hard to measure social isolation and loneliness precisely, there is strong evidence that many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk. Recent studies found that:
- Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
- Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.
- Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
- Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
- Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits. Source
I have often wondered how my mother lived such a long life, and aside from severe arthritis, a relatively healthy life.
My mother was seldom lonely.
She made it her mission in life to befriend strangers, to surround herself with people about whom she cared and who cared for her. She lived connected to a vast network of family and friends. And though there were times we worried about her mental health and her ability to cope with life’s ups and downs, her resilience and ability to make meaningful relationships where ever she was, her habit of always giving back in whatever way she could, kept her safe and secure to her final day.
Many older people are not so fortunate. Nor connected. As we age, so too does our close community. This can lead to feelings of loss, loneliness and isolation. These feelings can be exacerbated by life circumstances such as transitions to retirement and accompanying loss of identity, ill health, loss of a spouse or friends, mobility problems, vision and hearing loss, lower income, residential changes, and changes in access to transportation.
And, when we’re feeling lost and alone, when we fear we have no one we can safely reach out to, our mental and physical well-being are at risk.
We live in a diverse society. Not just gender, race, faith, sexual orientation and culture but age too. As in other developed countries, Canada’s population is aging. The number of Canadians aged 65 and older will rise from 14% (4.8 million) in 2010 to 25% (10.4 million) by 2036 (Statistics Canada, 2010). By 2056, 1 in 10 Canadians will be aged 80 or older (Martin-Matthews, 2011).
We are also living longer and continuing to make meaningful contributions to society well beyond the socially accepted retirement age of 65.
To ensure we capitalize on the age diversity that exists in society today, we must ensure our policies, programs, services and structural facilities are designed to promote social inclusion, connection and belonging. To capitalize on the significant contributions older generations are making and will continue to make for the common good, we must not limit their potential.
My mother was 97 when she took her last breath. If she had one regret, she used to say in her soft, lilting voice, it was that she hadn’t accumulated great wealth to leave behind for her children and their children.
She need not have any regret. What she left us is far more valuable. She left us knowing we belong to one another and an appreciation for the power of social connection.