Social isolation, loneliness, and older people: What's the problem?

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A virtual workshop to discuss what we understand and don't about social isolation and loneliness as we age.

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This virtual interdisciplinary workshop hosted by Nipissing University will set out what we know and what we don't know about social isolation and loneliness among older people. We explore current perspectives and research evidence exploring the ''problem'' in Canada and across the globe, some of the challenges implementing effective programs to address isolation and loneliness among older people and people living with dementia, and examining the impact of COVID-19 on social connections.

A part of public engagement activities of the Social Connections and Living with Dementia Study funded by The Retired Teachers of Ontario (RTOERO) Foundation, this event will be held on Zoom and will be of interest to academics, older people, people living with dementia, family care partners, as well as health and social care practitioners.


8:45-9:00am Welcome/Land Acknowledgement

9:00-10:00am Keynote Address: Is social isolation a problem for older people or a problem of older age?/Q&A

The established representation of social isolation and loneliness in the UK is as a social problem of old age. Indeed, it is often seen as a 'normal' part of the aging process. More recently, loneliness has been transformed into a public health problem with health consequences worse than smoking and generating 'excess' service use that threatens the future of healthcare provision.

In this presentation, Dr. Christina Victor (Professor of Gerontology and Public Health, Brunel University London), will cast a critical gaze on the topic with the aim of generating a more informed debate about the ''problem'' and what can be done in response. Lessons learned from the UK may assist Canada in the development of realistic strategies for its own aging population.

10:00-10:15am Break

10:15-10:35am Short paper 1: The construction of loneliness in the Canadian print media: Shaping the lives of older people

Media campaigns typically portray loneliness and older people as a major social and public health issue. This highly stigmatizing discourse depicts loneliness as an expected consequence of older age, a high burden of 'disease' for the health care sector, and easily amenable to social interventions vis a vis collective volunteer action.

In this presentation, Dr. Mary Pat Sullivan (Professor of Social Work and Social Gerontology, Nipissing University, Canada), will review messages in the Canadian print media from 2009-2019 and the need for a critical analysis of loneliness from the perspective of social and cultural constructions of aging, the social location of older people in society, and neo-liberalist ideology.

10:35-10:55am Short paper 2: Living with dementia in northern Ontario: Exploring interventions to mitigate the effects of isolation and loneliness

Few studies have explored the impact of social isolation and loneliness on people living with dementia and their care partners. Moreover, interventions to mitigate the impact of either isolation or loneliness are also understudied.

In this presentation, Jessica Bertuzzi (Public Relations & Education Manager , Alzheimer Society Sudbury-Manitoulin North Bay and Districts, Canada) and Dr. Veronika Williams (Associate Professor of Nursing, Nipissing University, Canada) will explore the prevalence and determinants of isolation and loneliness in people living with dementia and their care partners; introduce person-centred interventions for people who are dealing with isolation or loneliness; and consider whether the northern Ontario context poses a potential risk factor for isolation and loneliness or, alternatively, might it positively contribute to overall well-being.

10:55-11:15am Short paper 3: The language of loneliness through data visualization and interpretation of open-ended survey responses

A key limitation of our current evidence base about loneliness is that we have not considered how loneliness is understood or defined by people with lived experience. As part of the BBC Loneliness Experiment, an international study of loneliness conducted in 2018, participants were asked to define loneliness in their own words. Approximately 35,000 responses were provided which posed a challenge for analysis.

Dr. Alex Karassev (Professor of Mathematics, Nipissing University, Canada), Bright Effah (MSc Student, Nipissing University, Canada), and the BBC Loneliness Experiment Team (UK) present preliminary analysis of these open-ended responses using methods derived from data science, especially mathematical and statistical methods and specific computing software, to generate clusters of loneliness definitions which can be visualized and interpreted, for example, comparing the lay language of loneliness with the terms used in loneliness measurement scales.

11:15-11:35am Short paper 4: Dying alone and lonely dying: Fear, stigma and a way through loss and mourning

Dying alone without significant others present is often viewed as a bad death, though it is qualitatively different from lonely dying. As evidence for collective fears about dying alone, Dr. Holly Nelson-Becker (Professor of Social Work and Social Gerontology, Brunel University London) will present findings of a study which explored the treatment of these deaths in media using headline examples from the US New York Times and the English Guardian newspaper from the 19th century through May 2020. Dying alone was often represented as stigmatized death. Themes suggest dying alone is not normative, dying matters, and death should be acknowledged and honoured. We do well by hosting advance conversations about death, then mourning our losses by finding balance between grief and gratitude.

11:35am-12:00pm Q&A and Wrap-up

If you have any questions with respect to any of the sessions/speakers or for further information/participation in the Social Connections and Living with Dementia Study, please contact: Dr. Adetola Grillo ( OR Dr. Mary Pat Sullivan (

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