Volunteer drivers help Alberta seniors get to appointments—and reduce the risk of social isolation (photo: Nullplus/iStock)

Reducing Social Isolation in Alberta Seniors

By Craig Moy

The winter blues, cabin fever, seasonal affective disorder—whatever you call it, there’s no question that the darker, chillier days of winter can affect our wellbeing. The season can be especially isolating for seniors.

According to the 2016 census, there are now about six million Canadians age 65 and over, with about 530,000 living in Alberta. Research has estimated that 30 percent of seniors in Canada are at risk of becoming socially isolated, whereby limited contact with others can lead to loneliness, emotional distress, and health problems in individuals, not to mention a decline in the vibrancy of our communities.

No two people become socially isolated in the same way, just as no two people equally experience isolation’s effects. Broadly, however, major risk factors include compromised health and other physical limitations, as well as life changes (e.g. the loss of a spouse) that may shrink one’s social circle. Long winters can exacerbate isolation: it’s well known that reduced sunlight exposure negatively impacts mental health; transportation can also be a challenge, reducing opportunities for meaningful engagement with others.

Fortunately, supports for seniors are available—no matter the season.

TRANSPORTATION ASSISTANCE
Mobility issues, such as physical limitations or simple lack of a vehicle (or lack of a driver’s licence), undeniably contribute to the social isolation of older Albertans. Recognizing this, a number of community organizations throughout the province help to connect seniors with volunteer drivers—to reach medical and other appointments. Where public transportation is an option, most municipalities offer reduced fares for senior riders.

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And for seniors who do have access to a vehicle, but who may be reluctant to hit the road, CAA National offers a variety of tools to help you assess your driving skills, understand how aging can affect behind-the-wheel performance, and adjust your driving habits accordingly.

LOCAL CONNECTIONS
Many municipalities now recognize the role seniors play in fostering dynamic communities, and so offer a variety of programs to promote active and engaged aging. Often these programs are delivered through community and recreation centres (as they are in Calgary and Edmonton), and range from organized nature and bird-watching walks to art classes to counselling and support groups.

Social outreach services in these and other cities are available through non-profit agencies such as the Calgary Seniors’ Resource Society, the Edmonton Seniors Coordinating Council, and Sage, the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton. Likewise, Meals on Wheels services operate in many of Alberta’s larger municipalities (including Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat), delivering nutritious food and social contact to seniors and others who may be unable to make their own meals.

PROVINCE-WIDE DIRECTORIES
A handful of online databases—such as InformAlberta.ca and the United Way–founded 2-1-1 telephone helpline and website—also exist to connect Albertans to community resources. For older adults, this means everything from public libraries and active-living centres to transportation services and meal programs. The Alberta Office of the Seniors Advocate also manages a number of directories listing social, health and other support services throughout the province.