Sarah Dyer is a Community Well-being & Age-friendly Specialist with BC Healthy Communities.
As human beings we tend to thrive when we are socially connected, and it does in fact negatively affect health outcomes when people are socially disconnected. As we grow older, social networks tend to decrease over time, potentially leading to social isolation and loneliness. Often these two terms are used interchangeably, but a person can be socially isolated while not feeling lonely, and can be not socially isolated and still feel lonely (more research here and here). Since older adults can be at higher risk for social isolation and loneliness due to losing friends and family, disability, reduced mobility and other factors, it is an important area of research and community support, so that older people can experience life and health to the fullest.
In Age-friendly planning, the goal is to create an environment in which older adults are able to age healthily in place (at home and/or within their municipality) and participate fully in their community, eliciting a sense of belonging and fostering social connectedness.
The goals of healthy aging and social connectedness are brought about via municipal policies, programs, and services through the 8 Domains of Age-friendly: 1. Outdoor Spaces & Buildings; 2. Transportation; 3. Housing; 4. Social Participation; 5. Respect & Social Inclusion; 6. Civic Participation & Employment; 7. Communication & Information; and 8. Community Support & Health Services.
All of the 8 domains impact social connectedness in different ways, with the net effect of keeping older adults healthy and connected to the community as a whole and socially.
Changes incorporated into Outdoor Spaces & Buildings—the natural and built environment—such as evenly paved, wide, walkable and well lit sidewalks and trails, wide entrances to buildings with ramps and railings, allow older adults to safely and easily move around the community, which facilitates community participation.
Affordable, accessible and convenient public Transportation has this same effect.
Having affordable, healthy, and appropriate Housing allows older adults to remain in the community that they know, and within which they have social and family ties.
Social Participation and Respect and Social Inclusion, with a focus on including older adults, ensures that there are opportunities to develop new social networks as well as to maintain existing ones. Included in this domain, public services, local businesses, media are respectful of, and make accommodations for, diverse groups of older adults.
Civic Participation & Employment enables older adults to maintain their sense of purpose, contribution, and connectedness through opportunities to use their skills and experience via volunteerism, employment, and decision making related to the community.
Communication & Information that are Age-friendly keep older adults connected to the community through their awareness of available programs and services, including Community Support & Health Services, which keep older adults healthy so that they can stay connected.
The next layer of Age-friendly Communities and social connectedness is thinking of those who tend to “fall through the cracks.” That is, considering those groups within the older adult population who are historically underserved (Indigenous peoples, women, those experiencing disability, experiencing homelessness, and low income, those who identify as LGBTQ2S+, people of colour) and engaging them specifically to learn what they want and need to improve life and health in their community. In planning and public health, this is often referred to as using an equity lens. This process helps to ensure all groups in the community are “seen” and considered. Focusing on those whose voices are historically left out benefits the entire community, and increases social connectedness.