Survey finds hope for Vancouver’s lonely souls

Martha Perkins - Vancouver Courier

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The 2017 Vancouver Foundation report says that seniors have a clear idea of how to create a sense of engagement with friends and their communities.

Five years ago, the Vancouver Foundation struck a chord — and sparked countless conversations — when it released a survey that described Metro Vancouver as a difficult place to make friends.

Those challenges still exist today but the 2017 survey also offers some positive insights that speak to how people are forging connections between each other and their city.

“There is more hope,” says Kevin McCort, the foundation’s president and CEO, of the findings outlined in Connect & Engage: A Survey of Metro Vancouver 2017.

For instance, loneliness rates are lower than expected, in part because the new survey questions differentiated between being alone and feeling lonely. While 14 per cent of respondents said they feel lonely often or almost always, 34 per cent say they never feel lonely. Nine in 10 said they have someone they can depend on in times of need. And 18 per cent of respondents are quite okay with their alone times, thank you very much.

Before drawing too many black-and-white conclusions, it’s important to note that the survey questions in 2017 were not the same as they were in 2012. McCort says that the foundation realized that “some of the questions we asked in 2012 inadvertently led to a negative response.” The 2012 responses tapped into a legitimate viewpoint that was obviously shared, but this year the foundation concentrated on making sure its questions were as neutral as possible. As well, it drew together a broad team of community leaders to draft questions that would delve deeper into why people felt the way they did.

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For instance, among those who said they weren’t as engaged with their city as they’d like, slightly more than half (51 per cent) attributed it to just how busy they were. They know what they can do to increase their interactions with others; they simply don’t have time to do it.

Low incomes also create a barrier to full participation in activities. Nearly one-quarter (22 per cent) said they didn’t have enough money to take advantage of opportunities. Among young people, 44 per cent were more likely to report that they simply didn’t know what activities were available to them.

A surprising result for McCort was a rather precipitous decline in how many people made use of libraries, community centres and recreation centres. In 2012, 83 per cent of respondents said yes; in 2017, the number dropped to 58 per cent.

Something that might surprise a lot of people is that the number of seniors, 62 per cent, say they use technology to stay connected — one per cent higher than the number of young people. Seniors had clear ideas of how to create a sense of engagement with friends and their communities, and reported a stronger sense of belonging than any other age group.

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However, McCort says that people shouldn’t say “you’ll get happier as you get older.” “Anyone who is feeling disconnected shouldn’t have to wait. Why go through a decade of your life feeling unhappy and disconnected. That doesn’t have to be.”

The Vancouver Foundation has been taking steps to make it easier for people to make those connections. After the 2012 survey results, it increased its small grants program. The grants, perhaps $500, help people organize events in their communities, using the money to waive or lower fees to pay for rentals or food.

For instance, one woman used a grant to buy pumpkins and then invited neighbourhood children, many of them from immigrant families, to discover the Canadian Hallowe’en tradition of pumpkin carving.

“That’s the kind of thing we’ll do more of,” McCort says. “It helps people’s sense of belonging.”

The Foundation is also encouraging other local organizations to do the same. The 2012 survey already has sparked internal discussions among other groups to determine if they could do more to make people feel part of their community. For instance, the YMCA created a marketing campaign that included a photo of a yoga mat and the tagline, “There’s always a welcome mat at the YMCA.”

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“The things we do, anyone can do,” McCort says. “We just really encourage people to take those steps.”

The survey was administered by Mustel Group and was conducted online in either English or Chinese by 3,785 residents of Metro Vancouver. The 2012 survey also included phone surveys; when making comparisons, the survey compares this year’s findings with the 2012 online responses only. For full survey results, go to VancouverFoundation.ca.

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