The nature of the Canadian family is changing, and that can have a profound effect on retirees and pre-retirees. Families have steadily become smaller since the 1950s,1 and the number of individuals living alone in Canada has more than doubled over the last 35 years.2 Coupled with other trends over these time periods – such as longer lifespans – these demographic shifts raise the issue of social isolation as we grow older. Loneliness can have both mental and physical effects; there is some evidence that ailments worsened or perhaps even caused by loneliness can include heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and neurogenerative disorders.3
Changes in family structures and dealing with the prospect of isolation may necessitate expanding what we think of when it comes to family support structures. That could mean both strengthening our relationships with immediate family members but also creating a network of social and support contacts outside of the traditional family. This can prevent loneliness and possibly improve your physical health as well.
Family and close friends
Often the default social support is your immediate family and friends, but geographic distance and conflicting timetables can make this a challenge. Finding ways to close that gap can be key to maintaining or strengthening these relationships while also providing yourself with an important sense of routine and scheduling, which are particularly important for people in retirement.
If the physical distance between you and your closest family is still within ground transport distance, then a regular gathering, whether weekly, biweekly, monthly or otherwise, can be a great way of maintaining contact regularly. If you or a loved one is a senior experiencing health challenges, it’s important that these visits aren’t just “maintenance checks,” as normalized social interaction is extremely valuable for seniors.
If the geographic distance is too great between you and your closest family, considering exploring what technological options there are for face-to-face interaction. For example, the video and voice chat application, Skype, is popular across many age groups, and there are numerous online resources to familiarize yourself with these and other technological options. Similar to the physical gatherings, regularly scheduled online chats can provide social contact in a routine and scheduled manner.
You can use any of the previously mentioned tips with your close friends as well, especially if you are all retirees, as regular interactions can be beneficial for all involved.
Your health care network
During our working lives, one of the things often left neglected is our own health. Regardless of whether you’re a retiree or pre-retiree, assembling all your health care resources is a critical part of taking care of yourself.
A good first step may be just sitting down and drawing up a checklist of important contacts to have on hand. Are you a registered patient with a family physician? Even if so, when was your last visit? Are you sure this physician is still practicing at the same location? When was your last full physical examination?
You should ask yourself these same questions about other important health care practitioners, such as your dentist. This is also a good time to list any new health care resources you think you will need or want to access when you have more time, such as a massage therapist, nutritionist or counsellor.
If you’re close to or in retirement, set aside some time to explore what formal and informal resources are available in your area to provide social interaction and social support. For example, exercise is an important part of health maintenance, so a regular fitness class or recreational sports league appropriate to your ability level, is a great way to provide both physical and social activity.
There may also be classes, clubs or regular gatherings based on a particular interest of yours (e.g., a chess club at a local boardgame café, a crafts class at a community centre or retailer) that can be an important informal social support. Even if this interest of yours is casual at best, just having a semi-regular social outlet outside of your own home can be critical for improving your mental and physical health as you age.
1. “The shift to smaller households over the past century,” Canadian Megatrends, Statistics Canada, May 17, 2018.
2. Jackie Tang, Nora Galbraith, Johnny Truong, Insights on Canadian Society: Living alone in Canada, Statistics Canada, March 6, 2019.
3. Senior Loneliness and Isolation – A Growing Health Crisis, Living Assistance Services – Senior Home Care, October 26, 2018.