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'We're all born for human connection': Student shares her solution for loneliness among seniors

Shared courtesy of CBC Radio · January 22, 2018

Following the Britain's appointment of the first-ever Minister for Loneliness, Cross Country Checkup discussed the state of social isolation across this country and what strategies, if any, would be beneficial to Canadians. Caller Susan Memedovich, a student of loss and bereavement at Western University, said a major cause of loneliness among seniors she's worked with is unresolved grief.

Susan told Checkup host Duncan McCue that the best solution for elder loneliness is one-on-one time with volunteers and caregivers who are able to listen compassionately.

Susan Memedovich: I'm a student at King's University College, part of Western's thanatology department. Thanatos is the Greek word for death. I'm pursuing a certificate in grief, loss and bereavement. I am a volunteer with the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON, a national not-for-profit care organization), the palliative visitation program, and I'm also a spiritual care coordinator at a long-term care facility. My plate is quite full. But what I find interesting is the idea of social isolation — it comes up again and again in my studies and in my work.

Duncan McCue: How does social isolation happen?

SM: One thing we find is we are quick to deal with people who are grieving or bereaved due to death losses. What we don't do well is acknowledge non-death loss, specifically in the sense of isolation. Take for example people in long-term care who had to leave their homes and their communities. They had to move from one village or city to another because of bed shortages. They may have left their community's social organizations or institutions they belong to, like a bridge club or a church group. Their last few years are spent in small, cubicle-sized rooms, and as much as there are activities in all these long-term care facilities, not everybody is a "joiner."

In my work, I find a lot of my time is spent one-on-one, sitting, holding space and listening to stories because a lot of these people have a lot of grief that has not been resolved. They have a lot of loss in their life that has never been addressed or dealt with. A lot of people find themselves completely and utterly depressed and socially isolated. It doesn't matter how many bingo groups you set up, or how many bus rides you take to visit different sites. Really, what is needed is one-to-one human interaction. I can't get behind a robot doing that work.

DM: Why not? What would trouble you about a robot?

SM: We're all born for human connection. For sight, for sound, for human touch, for smell. There is this personal interaction that is needed by all of us. We are all born to love and be loved. I don't feel that that happens through a robot.

DM: Dr. Brian Goldman talked earlier about the situation in Japan, where there's a huge lack of care workers and caregivers. What's your observation on how we're doing in Canada? Are you saying we need more one-on-one contact for seniors?

SM: Absolutely. I understand that this work is not for everyone. When families are separated by distance, or by unresolved issues within families, or when communities break down, what we find is that there is a need for caregivers. I'm not talking just about personal support workers (PSWs) and nurses, I'm talking about people who want to give of themselves.

I just finished a workshop this weekend on communicating with the dying and the bereaved. It was pretty heavy. I'm going home to do some self-care. But it's important to recognize that we need to hold space for people. Fundamentally, our humanity demands that we hold space and we walk together with people on their journey. We have to stop this sense that our lives are so busy — busy is just a word. It's not something that confines us. We have one life to live, and we should live it to the fullest. In my study in death and dying, I find that I'm really enjoying living, and I wish more people could experience that.

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