Canada has a loneliness ‘problem.’ How a Toronto hospital aims to tackle it

Loneliness in Canada, particularly among older people, has been steadily escalating, a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, a Toronto hospital is proactively addressing this growing concern through a clinical trial called ‘How R U’.

The program, put on by Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, aims to reduce loneliness in older hospital patients by facilitating social video calls between patients and volunteers over a three-month period.

“We’ve got a problem with connection in our society,” explained Toronto emergency room physician Dr. Jacques Lee, who is also heading the program. “Even walking down the street. Everybody’s looking at their phones, we’ve lost that sense of community.”

The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has witnessed a surge in loneliness, prompting heightened concern among experts, such as Lee. He has even likened the adverse health effects of social isolation and loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Lee witnessed the impact of loneliness firsthand among patients he encountered in the hospital. For example, he said during the early stages of the pandemic in spring 2020, Lee was working in the emergency room and treated an elderly man. While the man previously had COVID-19, that’s not why he was at the hospital: the patient said he felt he was dying from loneliness.

“He said ‘Doc, I’m dying of loneliness, I can’t live like this’,” Lee explained. “I didn’t have a prescription for that, I didn’t know what to do for him,” he told Global News.

This encounter prompted Lee to take action, leading him to launch the How R U study (initially launched in Australia) aimed at supporting the treatment of loneliness through the assistance of hospital volunteers.

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