Canada faces growing loneliness problem says survey

By Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News

OTTAWA (CCN) — Canada faces a growing loneliness problem says a new Angus Reid Institute poll showing nearly a quarter of Canadians say they experience extreme social isolation and loneliness.

The June 17 poll broke respondents into

  1. The Desolate who are both lonely and socially isolated (23 per cent);
  2. The Lonely but not isolated (10 per cent);
  3. The Isolated but not lonely (15 per cent);
  4. The Moderately Connected (31 per cent); and
  5. The Cherished (22 per cent).

“Visible minorities, Indigenous Canadians, those with mobility challenges, and LGBTQ2 individuals are all noticeably more likely to deal with social isolation and loneliness than the general population average,” the survey said.

“Those are troubling findings,” said Ray Pennings, executive vice president and co-founder of the think tank Cardus that commissioned the survey. “No Canadians should have to live in extreme social isolation or loneliness.”

“The survey doesn’t tell us why these groups are over-represented, so it’s hard to comment,” he said. “Otherwise, the fact any group, regardless of category, is over-represented is an area of concern.”

The Desolate are most likely to be lower income; have less education; and is twice as likely as those in the Cherished category to be single and live alone, the survey shows.

The Lonely but Not Isolated category is “the smallest and youngest group of the total population,” said Angus Reid, with the highest levels of education. Forty-three per cent are under age 35; and only 57 per cent are married or living common law.

The Isolated but Not Lonely group tends to be older, less educated and lower income. Sixty-two per cent are married, but have most likely seen their children leave home, with 48 per cent having children over 18 years of age.

The Moderately Connected, 31 per cent of the population, “occupy a middle ground” and this group “mirrors the general population, overall,” said the survey, with income levels, education, and marriage status “all remarkably similar to the national average.”

The Cherished tend to be most likely to be married (75 per cent); have higher than average incomes; are most likely to have children; and are least likely to be living alone.

Pennings said the impetus for the study arose from a conference last summer with several senior fellows regarding the big social questions likely to emerge over the next decade. “We were aware that Britain last year appointed a cabinet minister for loneliness,” he said. “There was a fair bit of study regarding loneliness and seniors.” But they were not aware of an overall study on loneliness, so they decided it was “important to lay the groundwork,” he said.

Pennings said he found the religious findings interesting, since previous studies with Angus Reid have focused on various levels of religious and spiritual involvement. When loneliness and social isolation were examined in relation to previously identified categories of Non-religious; Spiritually uncertain; Privately faithful; and Religiously committed Canadians, “it was only with those attending a place of worship that you’re really seeing the impact of religion there,” said Pennings.

“Those regularly attending religious services are not only less likely to experience social isolation, those who are not socially isolated are twice as likely to attend a religious service regularly as those who are very isolated, he said. “That’s a pretty stark difference.”

“Faith communities are fairly successful at bringing people together and reaching those who are isolated,” Pennings said. While people may go out to theatres, sports events and other public gatherings, there is “something significant about faith communities, that they are connecting on a more significant level.”

Pennings noted the survey came out the day after Quebec passed Bill 21, “which marginalized faith in public life.” The law bans the wearing of religious symbols by members of the public service, including judges, police officers, teachers and social workers.

The survey “shows marginalizing faith is socially harmful,” he said. “There are public impacts, social impacts that affect fiscal health, mental health, even financial issues like the payday loan industry.”

The survey also showed the positive impact of marriage and family. “If you are married and have kids you are less likely to be socially isolated,” Pennings said.

“The lonelier and more socially isolated you are, the more likely you are to be single, never married, separated, divorced or widowed,” he said. “The conclusion is pretty clear: family is one of the strongest institutions for fighting isolation and loneliness.”

The survey reveals 33 per cent of Canadians “say they’re not sure they could count on anyone for emergency financial help;” 18 per cent say “they’re not certain they could lean on anyone during a personal crisis; and 45 per cent say “they haven’t interacted socially with a neighbor in the last month.”

While Cardus might make some public policy recommendations down the road to support family and religious faith, Pennings said he was not sure he would “start with recommendations as if this is something government is going to solve for us.”

“Institutions such as family and faith have as much to say about it,” he said. “We have to start with public conversation. Then there are activities we can do. Forty-five per cent have not spoken to their nearest neighbor in the last month. Part of this is our own desire to connect along the way.”