Between mobile technology and the ease of transportation, many of us feel like we are more connected than generations before us.
But In some ways the opposite is true.
In a city like Vancouver, there are many people who feel lonely. It’s a problem that is even worse for our aging population.
There are health implications for loneliness that experts say will cost all of us financially.
CKNW’s Charmaine de Silva takes a look at the lives of seniors who live, struggle and thrive, alone in Vancouver.
“Sometimes, I’m here on my own three or four days at a time. Not a soul to speak to, just listen to radio, talking books and that.”
For many of us, there aren’t enough hours in the day.
Between work and family obligations, there’s barely enough time for personal care.
What would you give for some relaxation, some silence? Wouldn’t it be great to be left alone?
But what if it wasn’t by choice?
According to Statistics Canada, about a quarter of all seniors live alone.
That percentage gets larger with age, with closer to half of all people in their 80’s living alone.
In Vancouver’s West End, it’s even higher at 63%.
The toll of loneliness
“Mary” is 89-years old and has lived on her own since her husband passed away 27 years ago.
Her home is bright and welcoming, just like her.
You can immediately tell, she is very organized.
Truth is, she has to be. Mary is blind.
Mary started losing her sight when she was 33, diagnosed with chronic glaucoma.
Having things in their proper place allows her independence.
For years, Mary never let her visual impairment get in her way.
“I volunteered for all kinds of things. I was a volunteer for 46 years with CNIB, chaired committees, and took part in committees and boards. I did public speaking. I ran the speakers’ bureau for a number of years, and had a very enjoyable time.”
But things change.
“Now that I don’t see anything at all, I can’t manage to go out by myself. I need to rely on other people. The restrictions of going out, going shopping, you can’t do the other things people do without thinking about it.
It’s frustrating, of course.
One has to be very patient, but I’ve met some lovely people in the process. But of course, they have their own lives and people come and go in and out of my life for that reason. You know they move, take a different job, get married, have families, and have to give up because they just can’t spare the time and they have busy lives of their own.”
And that can mean going a long time without a visit.
“It doesn’t always occur to people to say ‘It’s a nice day would you love to go out to walk?’ I love to go for a walk, but you can’t expect people to do things regularly as you would wish to, because they’ve got their own lives.”
Human interaction matters
B.C.’s Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie says personal connections are very important, and can make the difference for many seniors.
“It’s important that they have people in their lives who are not just there delivering their clinical care, or necessarily even being paid as in their job. I think that you need people you can have a conversation with and talk to, and for some seniors – not all – have the dignity of that relationship not know of all the care issues that have to be dealt with in the morning or in the evening.”
Mary’s wish is that we would all take a little bit of time to get to know one another.
“In this building the managers are very pleasant, always chat to me and are as helpful as they can be. But I don’t know a single tenant in this building. I bet they all know who I am. As far as I know, I’m the only totally blind person in this building. People do say hello. We have the pleasantries and that’s as far as it goes. I think people are afraid. They think you’re going to get clingy, so they keep at arm’s length.”
CLICK TO SEE: A senior’s life in the West End
Connections in the city
Mary’s neighbourhood, Vancouver’s West End, is home to many seniors.
Area MLA Spencer Chandra-Herbert says the assumption is, with all of the apartments, it’s hard to have a sense of community.
He says that’s wrong.
“In many cases, it’s actually very welcoming. People do get to know their neighbours. They do reach out to the elder on their floor and get a bit of sense of understanding.”
But it’s not everyone, not even the majority.
Why don’t we take the time to get to know each other any more?
Isobel Mackenzie says part of may be cultural.
“Culture has shifted over the last fifty sixty years, women have entered the workforce. That’s created nobody in the house all day, that’s dried up a pool of very talented volunteers, people who got involved in the community. We don’t talk to our neighbours, we are reticent to be seen to be interfering or asking, and that’s a more difficult thing to overcome.”
So, it’s no surprise that even in a neighbourhood like the West End that likes to boast about its community spirit, Spencer Chandra-Herbert still meets many seniors who are lonely.
“A sense of connection is really tough to find. The West End Seniors Network, other groups try to put on events to bring people together. Breakfasts, lunches, dinners, low cost events or no cost events, to do that network.
But there are still so many people out there that I worry about. What happens if there is a fire, the power goes out, etcetera? Who’s looking out for them? I really worry about those folks, ’cause there are so many stories I think that we don’t hear because people have pride. They were raised not to think they could get help from someone else. And they’re living in pretty horrible situations.”