While most of us have experienced some degree of social isolation over the past couple of years due to the steps taken to slow the spread of COVID-19, for many older adults, these feelings existed long before the pandemic began in March 2020.

To sustainably address social isolation, especially among marginalized populations, the Alliance for Healthier Communities and its members -- community health organizations across Ontario – are working to bridge the gap between clinical and social care through an intervention called social prescribing.

Social Prescribing? What’s that?

First coined as a term in the United Kingdom in the late 1990s, social prescribing is a holistic approach to healthcare. The practice uses the trusted process of receiving a prescription from a health provider to connect people to activities and opportunities for social engagement. Importantly, social prescribing removes barriers for clients to take advantage of local, non-clinical services that help them to develop their interests, goals and gifts while connecting with their communities.

Related Story: Social Prescribing Community Quilt Shares More Stories of Connection

Social prescribing allows health providers to formally refer patients to community-based programs – which could be anything from an art class or dance lesson to an introduction to a local bereavement network – and then also provides a structure within which to follow up and track patients’ progress at meeting their own health goals.

“By integrating social support and care across the health system, we can help people safely reconnect to their communities and reverse some of the health impacts of the pandemic,” says Jennifer Rayner, Director of Research and Evaluation at the Alliance for Healthier Communities. “Social prescribing has the potential to be a game-changer for increasing people’s belonging, and could be a key tool for health and social care providers throughout Canada.”

According to research from the Nova Scotia Centre on Aging and Department of Family Studies and Gerontology Mount Saint Vincent University, approximately 30 per cent of older adults living in Canada – meaning millions of people from coast to coast – are at risk of becoming socially isolated. This is a problem that is widespread and systemic in nature, and that’s why a systems-based solution like social prescribing is needed.

Building on Promising Early Results

If we choose not to address social isolation at the systemic level, we will experience the long-term effects on our health and social systems in other ways. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the effect of social isolation on mortality is comparable to that of other well-established risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.

Results from the Alliance for Healthier Communities’ research pilot Rx: Community – Social Prescribing, a first-in-Canada social prescribing research project that ran from 2018 to 2020, are very promising. Participating clients reported their sense of loneliness decreased by 49 per cent. They also reported an increase of 19 per cent in social involvement and a 12 per cent increase in mental health.

Bringing Social Prescribing to Isolated Seniors

One participant in the Links2Wellbeing: Social Prescribing project through the Alliance for Healthier Communities and the Older Adults Centres’ Association of Ontario (OACAO), Linda, initially noted mobility issues and mental health concerns due to social isolation following her retirement. During the pandemic, she felt increasingly disconnected.

With some encouragement from family and information from her doctor, Linda was given a social prescription that referred her to community-based programs in Windsor where she lives, offered through the Life After Fifty Seniors Active Living Centre, a member of OACAO.

The opportunity to take part in community-based activities reinvigorated Linda’s sense of purpose. Now, she is a thriving member of the community who regularly knits baby hats and dishcloths for charity events. She also regularly encourages her friends experiencing social isolation to get connected as well.

“Social prescribing makes a big difference for patients during the pandemic who live alone, [are] unable to participate in social activities, and home-bound patients, especially with their isolation and loneliness. A social prescription to group activities gives them something to look forward to,” says Nicole, a nurse who has seen first-hand the positive impacts social prescribing on isolated seniors in her rural community.

Across Canada, social prescribing is gaining momentum among healthcare providers, community partners, researchers, funders, policymakers and health planners.

Together with the United Way B.C. and the Older Adult Centres Association of Ontario, and other key stakeholders the Alliance for Healthier Communities is convening a community of practice for professionals in academia, the arts, health care and more. This community of practice will help deepen understanding of social prescribing, and ways of implementing social prescribing initiatives. It will also provide this growing movement towards social prescribing with a way to learn from one another, raise awareness and develop provincial and national strategies.

“We are confident about the impact this holistic approach to healthcare will have for seniors and our health and social systems overall,” says Sarah Hobbs, CEO of the Alliance for Healthier Communities. “Social prescribing can be an important piece of the systemic solution to address social isolation, loneliness and to promote health equity through increased connectedness and belonging.”

Find out more about social prescribing at allianceon.org/Social-Prescribing.