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Unraveling a potential solution for seniors' well-being, a recent study found that psychological care delivered over the phone reduced levels of loneliness and depression in isolated seniors. Mental health benefits were found to be greater than those seen for antidepressants.
The study, published in the journal The Lancet (Healthy Longevity) in early February, reported that participants' levels of emotional loneliness fell by 21 per cent over a three-month period using telephone-based psychological care, and the benefits remained after the phone calls had stopped.
According to researchers, the trial for the study started within months of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic in the U.K., and the people invited to take part "were aged over 65 with multiple long-term conditions. They had been asked to shield during COVID and were at a high risk of loneliness and depression."
Professor Simon Gilbody from the University of York who co-led the study, said in a news release, "We now know that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and depression is a silent killer."
The issue is not unique to the U.K. A December 2023 report released by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in Canada said 58 per cent of seniors are feeling lonely and 41 per cent have experienced feelings of social isolation.
Simon Sherry, a clinical psychologist at CRUX Psychology, told Yahoo Canada the new findings show that countries like Canada should be taking the loneliness crisis more seriously. He also says it should encourage governments to provide similar interventions like telephone-based psychological care.
Has COVID-19 made loneliness worse?
Loneliness and isolation in seniors have been linked to an increased risk of strokes, dementia, coronary heart disease, cancer mortality and premature death.
Statistics Canada reported in July 2023 that almost one in five Canadian seniors (19 per cent) aged 65 and older reported experiencing loneliness in 2019 and 2020.
"I believe that we had a crisis of disconnection and loneliness and isolation prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic made those themes worse," said Sherry.
We live in a very lonely time where community is less available.Dr. Simon Sherry
He explained the COVID-19 pandemic created a required social and physical distancing between people that exacerbated the crisis of loneliness and isolation, especially among vulnerable populations like seniors. "I do think we have created a distance that hasn't yet brought us back together, so I do think we live in a very lonely time where community is less available," Sherry added.
Even though the study focused on a sample of participants living in the U.K, Sherry said he's "optimistic" that having psychological care delivered over the phone could have a beneficial impact on Canada's elderly population, but it’s something that still needs to be studied for actual results.
"I'd be optimistic about the scalability in that (telephone-based psychological care) is a highly deliverable, accessible intervention that I think could be widely disseminated."
What can Canada's government do?
In the meantime, Sherry said Canada needs a well-funded government-led initiative that looks at the problem of loneliness across all segments of society, from the mental health care that’s being provided to the environments that are being built.
"In North America, we've been hyper individualistic in our focus. We discount community and connection in the pursuit of extreme individualism," Sherry said.
"We are increasingly disconnected and lost from others when it comes to being immersed in social media and phones and we have mental health problems like depression that seems to only encourage isolation and worsen loneliness," he added.
He said governments should also start thinking about what kind of cities they're building and whether physical spaces are being built conducive to connection. "This can be windows that look out in the street, to having parks beside your seniors homes so that young and old can mingle with one another."
What can I do to combat loneliness?
Sherry claimed the key for people who are struggling with loneliness and isolation is to go to places and do things that align with their values. There is no general "prescription" that will instantly fix the issue, he explained.
"You learn that if you do certain actions, you can change and improve your mood… So it's highly empowering for people to learn how to schedule their activities to put themselves in contact with events that are potentially pleasurable, positive and rewarding."
For example, telling people to go to the park three times a week might not work at all because that person might not enjoy contact with nature that much, or is allergic to something.
"A person needs to take inventory of what they value, get a sense of what they experience as rewarding, and then plan around it so they can benefit from participating in these activities," Sherry added.