Like so many illnesses that plague Canada’s aging community, loneliness is an epidemic that few people are willing to discuss. Chronic loneliness affects millions of people over the age of 45, but the level of solitude that exists among immigrant seniors can sometimes stem from an unspoken issue in our country: an inability to overcome the language barrier.

Immigration is a huge part of Canada’s culture, making up 21.9% of Canada’s overall population, according to a 2016 Statistics Canada census. That same census revealed that this percentage is the highest it’s ever been since 1921; around the time of Confederation.

With so many residents being foreign-born, it’s understandable and expected that there would be some language barriers as new citizens adapt to a new country, their official languages, and its culture.

However, adapting is not always easy for immigrants, especially if they’re in the aging demographic. If they’re unable to learn a new language quickly, seniors can become isolated from their community, leading to loneliness and even depression.

According to a Government of Canada report, social isolation is a higher risk for seniors who are newcomers to Canada, citing language, family separation, economic reliance on children, and discrimination as contributing factors.

One Stats Canada report found that in 2011, immigrant women over the age of 65 who could not speak any official language – French or English – made up 5.5% of Canada’s entire population. One example of the language barrier leading to social isolation in seniors came from a recent interview with Amie Peacock, the daughter of a Philippine-born immigrant currently residing in Vancouver. Amie’s mother was “a social butterfly” prior to moving to Canada, but after settling into her environment, a lack of friends and knowledge of the local language left her feeling isolated.

Becoming aware of her mother’s solitude caused Amie to pioneer a local group called Beyond the Conversation; an organization that teaches English and encourages socialization.

It’s not always easy to learn a second language, especially in old age, but prioritizing it can have many positive impacts on an aging person’s life, including a reduction of social isolation.

Recent initiatives, such as The Loneliness Project, have recognized this segregation in Canada and have tried to improve this silent epidemic. People young and old take to this website to share their stories of loneliness, and while it’s primarily anglophone, the effort is one step towards eliminating the social isolation many seniors face every day.

For seniors who face social isolation due to a language barrier, it’s in their best interest to combat loneliness for their mental and physical health. The Government of Canada Report on Social Isolation of Seniors mentions that 44% of seniors who live in residential care show signs of depression and loneliness. Without social networks, studies indicate a 60% higher risk of seniors developing dementia or experiencing cognitive decline.

Luckily, there are ways that Canadian seniors who are practicing English as a second language can prevent or reduce loneliness. Here are a few.

ESL Communities & Groups

There are many support groups for people who are struggling to learn a second language. These groups are available based on region, but can often be located online or through government programs. For example, can direct Ontario residents to local support programs.

Volunteering or Joining Local Organizations

Seniors in Canada can volunteer or participate in associations to widen their circle of friends and improve their self-esteem, leading to lower assessments of loneliness, according to Stats Canada.

Using the Internet

Stats Canada also states that seniors who are trained to use the Internet have greater levels of life satisfaction and lower levels of loneliness and depression, citing social media to be a contributing factor.

If your loved one is struggling to adapt to Canada’s communities due to the language barrier, click here to learn how our nurses can help connect them to local resources.

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