Older adults are often treated as a monolithic group. We forget that they, like all human beings, have layered identities and unique circumstances. This conception leaves many older adults feeling invisible – forgotten by policymakers, researchers, and society at large.
Canada is home to close to seven million citizens over the age of sixty-five. Sixteen percent of these, approximately 1.1 million people, feel isolated some or much of the time, and approximately 1.2 million experience feelings of exclusion. The National Seniors Council (NSC) in partnership with the Government of Canada identified nine groups of seniors at risk of social isolation compared to their peers:
1) Indigenous Seniors
The impacts of ongoing colonial violence perpetuate risk factors for social isolation among Indigenous seniors. While they are a highly diverse group, the effects of intergenerational trauma and marginalization in Canadian society increase their likelihood of exclusion and invisibility.
2) Seniors Who Are Caregivers
Spousal caregivers may be at an increased risk of decreased social support and loneliness. As they watch their partner's cognition and health deteriorate, senior caregivers may experience stressors such as depression, financial issues, and poor health that increase feelings of alienation and invisibility.
3) Immigrant Seniors
In 2011, approximately 4.5 million Canadian seniors identified as immigrants. A 2015 study found that, on average, immigrant seniors are lonelier than their Canadian-born peers. Structural barriers such as access to resources in their native language may play a role in feelings of loneliness and invisibility.
4) LGBT Seniors
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender seniors can experience multiple levels of discrimination both from loved ones and in access to services. These barriers increase the likelihood of social isolation and feelings of invisibility amongst LGBT seniors.
5) Seniors Living Alone
A number of structural factors increase the likelihood that seniors living alone will experience social isolation. As older women are far more likely to live alone than men, more research is needed to understand the risk factors that contribute to feelings of invisibility among this group.
6) Seniors Living in Rural and Remote Areas
Seniors living in rural and remote areas have limited access to resources, yet there is little to no research on levels of social isolation between urban seniors and rural seniors. Within rural and remote communities, ethnicity and gender play a role in feelings of exclusion and invisibility.
7) Low-Income Seniors and Those Living in Poverty
Low-income and poverty are shown to increase social isolation among seniors. Loneliness is more prevalent among seniors living in public long-term care compared to private facilities. Studies show that feelings of loneliness and invisibility may be improved by age-friendly community initiatives
8) Seniors with Mental Health Challenges
20% of seniors living in the community and up to 90% living in institutions are estimated to have a mental health challenge. The stigma associated with mental illness increases social isolation amongst this group which in turn, promotes further mental health challenges.
9) Seniors with Physical Health Challenges
As our society places pressure on seniors to ‘age well’, the 45% of seniors who face a physical impairment are at increased risk of social isolation. Stigma and stereotyping of seniors with chronic illness or disability can cause older adults to feel excluded and invisible.
Maggie Clapperton is a social worker and content creator at Homecare Hub.