Quebec’s population is aging and will soon be one of the oldest in the western world . By 2030, 2.3 million people, or 25 percent of the province’s population, will be over 65 years of age. More than a third of them will be at risk of suffering from social isolation.
What does isolation mean in concrete terms and what do the numbers say?
Social isolation occurs when a person has few contacts with others (in number, duration, and frequency) and these contacts are superficial or unfulfilling.
This type of isolation does not happen overnight. It is insidious and results from the accumulation of various factors that combine to make certain individuals nearly – if not completely – invisible in the eyes of society.
Key risk factors for social isolation of seniors
In Quebec, the fertility rate in 2016 was 1.59 children per woman in 2016. (1.52 children per woman in 2020) This rate is well below the replacement level fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman. The number of births per year has been steadily decreasing since the 1970’s.
At the same time, improvements in living conditions and medical advancements have significantly increased life expectancy. In the coming years, there will be a greater number of elderly people in Quebec, and they will live longer.
As a result of this increasing longevity and the inevitable aging of the population, institutions are viewing the isolation of seniors as a critical and pressing societal issue. In this regard, the federal government commissioned a report on the social isolation of seniors in 2013. In Quebec, the 2018-2023 Action Plan was also implemented. Among other things, this plan highlights the need to improve living conditions and provide accessible transportation services for seniors.
Quebec’s population is aging, and society must quickly adapt to a growing and evolving generation of older citizens.
Loss of loved ones
Losing a lifelong partner can be such a life-shattering experience that some people find it almost impossible to recover. Losing a loved one often means losing touch with their friends and family, and ultimately, losing a big part of one’s social network. Women are more likely to find themselves in this situation, as 72 per cent are widows at the age of 85 and over, as compared to only 38 percent of men.
With age, bereavements add up, social circles shrink, and older people begin to feel more and more isolated. .
Madame Tremblay, a Great Friend of Little Brothers, explains the importance of being surrounded by a stable network to help cope with these hardships:
“My husband’s death was devastating for me. This man was not only my husband, but my faithful companion and confidant for 65 years: my only family. When he passed away, I found myself completely alone and I lost all interest in life. Then, one beautiful spring day, Little Brothers came into my life. No one can ever replace my Maurice, that’s true. But thanks to Little Brothers, I have a family again! I feel listened to and respected, and most of all, I don’t feel lonely anymore. I have a renewed interest in life. Thank you! ”
Among our Great Friends:
- 56% have lived with a partner;
- 73% live in an independent or intermediate care facility or in a long-term care center (CHSLD).
Physical decline and loss of mobility
Past a certain age, seniors become more prone to falls. And because bones become more brittle with age, falls have greater consequences and often lead to a loss of mobility. In addition, deteriorating eyesight and diminishing reflexes incite many older adults to stop driving.
- After age 80, the rate of physical deterioration doubles;
- 9 out of 10 people aged 65 or over are on medication ;
- 69 % of people aged 75 and over live with a disability;
- Many elderly people with health problems no longer possess a driving licence;
- 50 % of those aged 75 or over have hearing problems (nearly 9 out of 10 CHSLD residents).
These problems can quickly lead to a state of hopelessness and depression, as witnessed by Madame Gagné, a Great Friend of the Little Brothers Montreal team:
“When I discovered a few years ago that I was suffering from macular degeneration, my life was turned upside down. Losing my vision was a tragedy for me and I started to lose hope. Outings became limited, I felt I had nothing left in my future, and I was completely demoralized. Solitude is terrible! But meeting Little Brothers has changed everything. I have found happiness again. They are my friends. ”
Hearing loss: an underestimated factor linked to social isolation
After arthritis and high blood pressure, age-related hearing loss is the third leading cause of disability among seniors. The inability to hear creates barriers and inevitably leads to isolation as communication becomes more and more difficult. This social withdrawal has particularly harmful consequences. It results, among other things, in a 30 to 40 % drop in cognitive performance, as compared to a person with good hearing health, according to a study by otologist and epidemiologist Dr. Frank Lin.
Mental health and cognitive problems
Memory loss and other cognitive problems also make social interaction difficult. Elderly people living with cognitive deficits are often neglected, forgotten, or abandoned – some receiving not a single visit or sign of affection. Yet their relational and emotional needs are as important as anyone else’s.
A significant number of seniors live with mental health problems that severely hinder their ability to interact with others. This is a situation that Little Brothers encounters on a daily basis, as 23% of our Great Friends suffer from cognitive deficits.
- 1 in 4 seniors lives with a mental health problem (depression, anxiety, dementia);
- Elderly people who suffer from loneliness are 64 % more likely to develop dementia ;
- 72 % of people with Alzheimer’s disease are women.
Poverty and inflation
80 % of Little Brothers’ Great Friends have very modest incomes and receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement. This extreme poverty exacerbates their isolation. It is unthinkable to spend money on entertainment, restaurants, activities, or a vehicle when eating properly and finding accommodation already constitute a struggle.
- One in two elderly people lives on less than $20,000 a year .
- More than 80 % of our Great Friends receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement.
Raising Awareness to Provide Better Support
The general public’s lack of knowledge and awareness of this critical issue is one of the greatest obstacles to overcoming social isolation. It is certainly difficult to deal with a problem if, as a society, we are not aware of it. Social isolation is often associated with seniors being undervalued and abandoning volunteer positions and paid employment.
Yet, this situation is far from inevitable. Being attentive to the elders around us, interacting with them, identifying, and eventually signalling their needs to organizations like Little Brothers are simple and effective ways to change the course of a life.
Reducing isolation among seniors means providing an environment in which sharing and mutual support can thrive. Combating ageism in all its forms and promoting a positive view of ageing will undoubtedly make our society more open and inclusive for seniors.
 Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ). Le vieillissement au Québec, 2011.
 Enquête québécoise sur les limitations d’activités, les maladies chroniques et le vieillissement, Institut de la statistique du Québec, 2013.
 Tjalling Jan Holwerda, Dorly J H Deeg, Aartjan T F Beekman, Theo G van Tilburg, Max L Stek, Cees Jonker, Robert A Schoevers. « Feelings of loneliness, but not social isolation, predict dementia onset », J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry, 2014, vol. 85, no 2, p. 135–142.
 Ministère de la Famille et des Aînés du Québec. Les Aînés du Québec, 2012.