Contextual Risk Factors

Numerous risk factors have been identified in the literature on social isolation. These risk factors are embedded within several overarching social contexts, including ageism, discrimination, limited access to resources and services, and marginalization. Below, these factors are grouped together in 9 general categories. Here, the purpose is not to provide a new typology of factors, but rather to provide additional context for the reader before examining how they interact within specific groups of seniors.  While none of these factors may be sufficient in themselves to cause isolation, each may increase the chance of isolation and may combine with other factors to produce a cascading of risk. It should also be noted that, in some cases, the opposite of a risk factor is a protective factor. For example, not having access to affordable housing is a risk factor; having access to affordable housing can protect against the risk of social isolation.

Age and gender: being 80 or older; being a woman (since women, on average, live longer).

Ethnicity: being an immigrant (specifically, having a different cultural and linguistic background from the general Canadian population or community in which you live); being from an official language minority community.Footnote14

Geography: living in a rural or remote area where service provision and distance between individuals and families is less proximate; living in a deprived neighbourhood; living in a community where there has been a loss of community or neighbourhood values; living in a low-density neighbourhood.

Health and disability: having health issues (mental and/or physical) including having multiple chronic health problems (e.g., vision, hearing, incontinence, speech/cognitive impairment); lifelong health problems or late-onset or age-related condition such as incontinence; mental illness (e.g., dementia, depression); stigma associated with mental illness, poor health or a disability; low access to health care; minimal walking time; poor perception of one’s own health.

Knowledge and awareness: challenges relating to technology (costs, literacy, comfort); lack of information on services; lack of awareness or access to community services and programs

Life transitions: loss of a spouse; loss of sense of community; disruption of social networks; lack of family and friend supports; loss or restriction of drivers’ license; entry into care; care-giving and associated factors (intensity of care-giving, low levels of care satisfaction, inability to leave the care recipient alone); divorce; living in a nursing home.

Poverty and lack of access to resources: lack of affordable housing and care options; living with low income; lacking access to transportation (no license or public bus system); financial dependence; living in a deprived neighbourhood (also considered a geography factor).

Sexual and gender identity: being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT); history of discrimination; having a weak primary social network; lack of social recognition; discrimination in the health-care system; fear of coming out in older age.

Social relationships: low quality of relationships; having no children or contact with family; living alone (greater likelihood among women, gay men and lesbians); not being married or common-lawed; loss of friends and social network; experiencing ageism.

Figure 1General risk factors identified in the literature
General Risk Factors Identified in the Literature for Seniors at Risk of Isolation