25 per cent of Canadian seniors live alone, but there lies a little-documented population within that demographic that live in acute isolation.

To have nobody means to have no children, spouse or friend still alive. It is to have no church group to belong to, no neighbour to eat a sandwich with or sibling to come over. If someone has a mailman or even a hydro meter reader who says hello, that greeting is a connection, but when somebody has nobody, the option is 911.

“We have individuals who will go weeks and weeks and weeks without having contact with someone from the external,” says Ryan Sneath, a paramedic in Winnipeg. “They end up calling 911 because 911 ends up addressing their needs. They get interaction immediately. They get transported to an emergency department, where people care for them and are engaged with them, and I think they often crave that interaction or crave that engagement.”

Sneath is one of the few medical practitioners who are beginning to identify Canada’s loneliest people. While 25 per cent of Canadian seniors live alone, there lies a little-documented population within this demographic that live in acute isolation. Statistics Canada says it doesn’t have publishable data on a group now being labelled “elder orphans”—people who are 65 and older with no living spouse or children. However, these people are sometimes called “elder orphans.” The term “evolved in American academia in the early 2000s and is most recently associated with a 2016 journal article by Maria Carney, a geriatric doctor at Hofstra University in New York who was the lead author of “Elder orphans hiding in plain sight: a growing vulnerable population.” The paper defines “elder orphans” as aged, childless, single people who are physically and/or socially isolated, and it found that 22 per cent of American seniors are at risk of becoming one.

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