We recently surveyed our members about social isolation and loneliness. The results were intriguing. According to our members, the best ways to avoid loneliness are to be female, high status, legally married (common law doesn’t help), have two or more children, have grandchildren, and have easy access to transit or live near a park.
Predictably, those who are extroverted are less likely to be lonely than their shyer counterparts. More surprisingly, there was only a small relationship between loneliness and the personality trait of agreeableness. Thus, a sympathetic and warm introvert was more likely to be lonely than a critical and quarrelsome extrovert. The personality trait most linked to loneliness was what social scientists call emotional stability; people who are calm and stable are less likely to be lonely than those who are anxious and stressed.
We noticed geographic differences, too; Quebec had the highest percentage of those who say that they feel alone (eight per cent of respondents in that province) compared to those in Nova Scotia, the Prairies and British Columbia (three per cent).
Of course, this one survey couldn’t reveal the reasons behind these responses. While it’s pretty clear that loneliness doesn’t eliminate parkland, other effects are less clear-cut. For example, we can’t tell whether people are more stressed and anxious when they are alone, or whether being stressed and anxious drives others away. It’s even possible that these effects work together, reinforcing each other.
Because Quebec is such an outlier in terms of lonely folks — the province with the second-highest incidence of loneliness was Ontario at five per cent — I did wonder what might be behind those numbers. I know that all of our Quebec members are English speakers and I suspect many do not speak French. Perhaps that has led to increased isolation, providing fertile ground for loneliness to take hold?
The most intriguing result from the survey was the effectiveness of parks in reducing loneliness and social isolation. Even when we controlled for socioeconomic status, green space mattered. A lot. In statistical terms, the relationship between avoiding loneliness and living near a park was four times greater than the relationship between avoiding loneliness and having children.
There has been some excellent research on the impact of parks in combatting a variety of public ills, including social isolation. A recent report by Park People, a Toronto-based charity, noted that parks reduce mental illness, increase social cohesion and improve the physical health of those who use them.
Urban greening research compiled by the University of Washington demonstrated the beneficial impact of gardening for dementia. Outdoor nature-based activity contributes to improved sleep patterns, balanced hormones, and decreased agitation in dementia patients and gardening on a daily basis was found to reduce risk factors for dementia by 36 per cent.
Corroborating the findings of our survey, a 1984 study shows that just looking at green space can improve health outcomes. The study, led by Dr. Roger S. Ulrich and published in Science, followed 46 gall bladder patients through recovery in hospital. Half looked out on a brick wall, the others on a park with a leafy green tree. Those whose window faced a park were found to recover faster (on average, spending almost a day less in the hospital) and use fewer strong pain medications (narcotics) than the patients who faced a brick wall.
At CARP, we’ve long advocated for walkable cities and world-class transit so that people of all ages can be active and engaged in their communities. It looks like we need to add green space to the top of our advocacy list. Perhaps mom really did have our best interests at heart when she told us to go play outside.
You can read more about our survey or see the detailed results at CARP.ca/loneliness
Wanda Morris is the VP of Advocacy for CARP, a 300,000 member national, non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates for financial security, improved health-care and freedom from ageism for Canadians as we age. Send questions to [email protected] To join CARP or learn more, call 1-800-363-9736 or visit carp.ca