What is social isolation?

There are many definitions of social isolation. The Pan-Edmonton Group Addressing Social Isolation of Seniors (PEGASIS) has chosen to use the following definition:

“Social isolation is a low quantity and quality of contact with others. Social isolation involves a situation of few social contacts, few social roles, and the absence of mutually-rewarding relationships.”
Source: Keefe, J., Andrew, M., Fancey, P. & Hall, M. (2006). Final Report: A Profile of Social Isolation in Canada. Submitted to the Chair of the F/P/T Working Group on Social Isolation.

This definition includes both objective measurement of social networks (quantity) and the person’s subjective perceptions of loneliness (quality).

Social isolation is an objective measure that refers to the size of a person’s social networks and the number of interactions. When people have few social contacts they can be socially isolated.

The term loneliness is often used interchangeably with social isolation. Loneliness is a subjective perspective that refers to how people feel about their interactions with others. It is the feeling of being without the types of relationships one desires.

Social isolation may increase the likelihood of loneliness, but a person can feel lonely even when in the company of others. One can have few social contacts and not feel lonely and someone who has many contacts and a busy social life can still feel lonely.

“Another way to think about the relationship between social isolation and loneliness is: Isolation is being by yourself. Loneliness is not liking it.”

Source: Dr. Sharon Anderson, PEGASIS researcher

Given that social isolation is a complex concept, some definitions highlight specific elements of the experience that other definitions do not:

“a state in which the individual lacks a sense of belonging socially, lacks engagement with others, has a minimal number of social contacts and they are deficient in fulfilling and quality relationships”

(Nicholson, 2009, p. 1346)

“an involuntary, undesired situation where an individual has few social contacts and roles, and is experiencing a lack of rewarding relationships with others”

(Zuran & Liu, 2012)

  • Connections are important no matter the language

    "I don't like going outside when the weather is too cold, but my ESL class is where I see my friends and learn some English. I wouldn't miss it for anything."

  • Social connections can make life transitions more manageable

    "I retired and lost my workplace; then my wife died. I was falling into depression until a friend got me involved with fitness classes at our seniors' centre."

  • There is a difference between being alone and being lonely

    "I like being alone, but not all the time. When my knee got really bad, I was forced to be alone and that's when you get lonely. When you have a car and you are lonely, you can get in the car and go."

  • Quality matters

    "You can be in a crowd of three thousand people at a football game, and you could be lonely. Yet you can be at home reading, watching the tube or whatever, and you're not lonely. Like I said, I don't think the feeling of loneliness has got anything to do with the number of people around you. It's the quality of the people that are around you that's the important part. Whether it's one or a dozen."


People of all ages with robust networks of social and community support have better mental and physical outcomes.

Why are seniors more at risk?

Seniors are especially at risk of being socially isolated or lonely. By the time people reach their 80s, the majority live on their own, mostly because of the loss of a spouse. This is particularly the case for older women who are more likely to be widowed than older men.

Social networks often get smaller – children and grandchildren may have moved away and siblings and friends may have died.

The normal human aging process leads to health challenges that can limit physical, mental and emotional capacity to participate in activities.

Loneliness is prevalent among older adults. The statistics are significant in our 2019 survey of 720 Edmonton adults 55 years and older:


21% of respondents scored as lonely


13% did not feel connected to their family


18% did not feel connected to their friends


13% did not feel valued by their families


19% did not feel valued by their friends

Data source: PEGASIS Population Survey of 720 adults aged 55+, February 2019, conducted by InsightsWest.

Read more about the results of the PEGASIS Population Baseline Survey.


*The above survey included the three-item UCLA Loneliness Scale, which asks the following: How often do you feel you lack companionship? How often do you feel left out? How often do you feel isolated? to arrive at a combined score to indicate level of “loneliness”.

Risk factors for social isolation

Social isolation rarely happens because of just one life event or situation. Many factors contribute to an increase in the risk of social isolation for seniors:

  • Living alone
  • Lack of participation in social activities
  • Poor health and mobility 
  • Financial challenges
  • Lack of accessible, affordable transportation
  • Life transitions such as retirement or loss of a spouse
  • Providing care to a partner, parent or friend
  • Unstable/insecure housing situation
  • Language barriers
  • Societal barriers such as ageism and lack of opportunities for seniors to contribute
  • Inequality (racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQ)
  • Abuse

Journey Map: Social vulnerability may lead to isolation

Content of this journey map is drawn from in-depth interviews with seniors and senior-serving workers as part of the PEGASIS initiative.

The interviews showed wide variations in personal experiences across a spectrum of factors that influence social vulnerability and social isolation. Although each person’s journey is unique to their situation, there are common issues and conditions that can be linked to social isolation. Findings support the scientific literature which acknowledges the complex and dynamic nature of this subject.

View a printable copy (8.5 x 11 inches).

illustration of how social vulnerability may lead to isolation

Why does it matter?

At all ages, loneliness has a devastating impact on health. Because older adults’ health is more delicate, increases in social isolation can have significantly greater impacts and require more frequent medical interventions. Providing acute care services is more expensive so preventing social isolation can help reduce costs on the acute care system.

Lonely and socially isolated seniors are at increased risk of:

  • Cognitive decline and dementia
  • Depression, anxiety and suicide
  • Falls and hospitalization
  • Increased blood pressure and cardiovascular disease
  • Premature mortality

Social costs are also greater. Social isolation reduces older adults’ well-being and quality of life. Socially isolated seniors do not feel valued or have a strong sense of belonging or fulfillment. They are less satisfied with their lives than those who are satisfied with their social contacts.

If you think you may be at risk, or someone you know may be at risk, learn to identify the signs of social isolation

Information on this website has been developed using many sources.

Contact us if you want detailed references.