Diagnosis Loneliness: Project in Strait Richmond aims to bridge gaps of social isolation

Senior woman looks out, appears lonely

Lily feels alone. Raising a young grandchild in rural Nova Scotia, she doesn’t feel she belongs among young parents, nor among her peers, who have shifted their focus to leisure and travel in their retirement. Lily also lives with post-traumatic stress disorder, which is challenging and isolating both in its symptoms and its stigma.

Almost a decade ago, Lily had to give up her career and go on long-term disability benefits. Since then, she has become increasingly isolated, doing her best to cope with PTSD symptoms while raising her grandchild.

“You lose touch with your circle of friends,” said Lily. “Your social life and personal life are interconnected with work. It’s a common story. People don’t know how to react when someone is mentally ill. It’s not like cancer. No one throws you a fundraiser. They don’t know what to say so there’s no contact. You end up becoming more isolated. It snowballs over the years. Who you thought you were becomes lost.”

What Lily is experiencing has a name – social isolation. It also has a huge impact on health.

“Lacking social connections can be as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” said Michele MacPhee, Seniors’ Safety & Social Inclusion Coordinator, Dr. Kingston Memorial Community Health Centre, referring to an article in American Psychologist by Julianne Holt-Lunstad. Unlike smoking, MacPhee says, “Social isolation is a bit more nuanced.”

The Strait Richmond area has a significant population of seniors – more than 50 per cent. The area is highly rural, lacking in transportation options, and many of its residents live on a low income. MacPhee said all of these factors contribute to the likelihood that residents will experience social isolation.

Community Health Boards throughout Nova Scotia, including Strait Richmond Community Health Board, have identified social isolation as a health priority.

Dr. Kingston Memorial Community Health Centre applied for funding from Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Chronic Disease Innovation Fund to help address the issue in their region. The focus of their funded project, led by MacPhee, is to build an understanding of social isolation and collaborate with partners to create a social safety net that will improve social engagement and inclusivity within the Strait Richmond area.

An important part of MacPhee’s work is to give voice to the stories of those, like Lily, who experience social isolation. Some are choosing to capture their struggles through photos, which will be displayed in a photo gallery to help increase public understanding of what social isolation feels like.

“People are opening up to me about their experiences of isolation. That helps to reduce the stigma,” said MacPhee. “A lot of seniors can be private but they are also incredibly resilient. This is a population used to dealing with things on their own, but people are beginning to realize they’re not alone in this experience. Trailblazers are coming out and sharing their experience helps to reduce the shame and self-judgment.”

Lily is one of those trailblazers. “I realized this is something I’ve never done before – taking a look at how social isolation is affecting my life and my grandchild’s life,” she said.

She still struggles with a lack of supports and spends much of her time alone when her grandchild is at school, even more so during the winter months. When Lily does get out to the grocery store or medical appointments, she values the connection that in-person interactions uniquely offer.

“It means so much to see someone face to face. To have someone put their hand on top of your hand and say, ‘It’s going to be ok.’ That little human touch is all you need sometimes.”

Through this project, Lily has found the courage and strength to tell her story so that others know they’re not alone. “I’m pleased that they’re putting these projects out there. I hope it’s something they’ll continue to support. They are making a difference.”

Are you feeling socially isolated? If you’re experiencing social isolation and are living in the Strait Richmond area, you can contact Michele MacPhee at 902-587-2800, extension 5 or seniorsafetycoordinator.dkmchc@gmail.com. If you live elsewhere in Nova Scotia, please call 211 to find out what resources and supports are available in your community.