Social Isolation and Visiting Programs [1]


It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try

 to help another without helping himself.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Volunteers don't necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.
--Author Unknown


Growing older brings many contradictions with it. On one hand, a person is fortunate to have lived sixty, seventy, eighty or more years. At the same time, a person’s family may have moved or died; friends may have died, moved, or now live in a care facility; and neighbourhoods change.


If the person’s health decreases or become impaired, a senior can gradually become isolated from the community and the things that have been important to him or her in the past. To help alleviate this problem, a number of Canadian cities have established visiting programs for seniors. The terms for the programs vary.   The names commonly refer to: “Seniors' Companionship”; “Friendly Visiting”; or “Volunteer Visiting”. Most provide friendship and assistance to elderly individuals who are homebound and living alone.


Visiting programs are only one part of the isolation puzzle:


… The most obvious solution is a program of trained friendly volunteers with connections to all potential sources of referral.   However, relying on a supply of trained friendly volunteers is not the only solution…”[2]



Understanding Social Isolation


Social isolation can be looked at from two sometimes very different perspectives[3]:


(1)   the senior’s point of view - does she or he feel isolated and want change;

(2)   according to others involved with the senior- does he or she seem isolated?


These points of view may agree. They can differ—for instance, when others may think that the senior is isolated, but the senior does not. In other instances, they both know the senior has become isolated, but senior may not feel change is not possible, doesn’t have the resources for change or simply does not want to change the situation. There are many reasons for this last possibility.   As one volunteer who had a lifelong experience of caring for others explained:


“… A lot of people don’t like others coming into lives, they are afraid, they think someone is going to take advantage…they are scared, that’s why they are not calling…”


 Some service providers recognize this too:


“It can be very difficult for a senior to meet someone new,.. to have them see  the shape you and your home  are in,…  to the difficulty and that you are struggling. A senior can also be struggling with fact that he or she needs help with friends… It [offering a visitor] suggests that you have no confidence, and competence…”




Understanding the Concept of Volunteer or Friendly Visiting


 “It is common sense that it would be of benefit to them (seniors)…”

- comment from service provider


Social isolation is a complex phenomenon, with different meanings for different people. A simple but elegant description of it is “a lack of “meaningful contact.“[4] There are a number of recognized causes of isolation—physical reasons, circumstantial, family-related, and personality.[5] People want to eliminate isolation because it can lead to depression, grief, anxiety, health problems, alcohol and drug use, and suicide.[6] Isolation affects not only the senior, but also others who care about the senior or who are in contact with the senior.[7]


While people are in agreement that isolation is not healthy and volunteer visiting may be helpful to isolated seniors, they don’t always agree on what visiting programs should involve. Across Canada, several programs serve isolated, frail, or infirm seniors living in the community. Others also help people with disabilities in similar circumstances. In some of these programs, volunteers work on a one-to-one basis in the homes of seniors. In other programs, they provide support by telephone. Typically, the volunteers talk, walk, and shop with the seniors.



Program goals may differ (See Fig. 1), and may involve one or both of the following:


(1)  Some involve assisting clients with chores such as paying bills, grocery shopping, and finding transportation to medical appointments and offering contact to the outside world. They aim at breaking the environmental barriers to isolation, helping the person live independently, and focus on making everyday life easier and more enjoyable for the senior.


(2)   Others focus more on breaking loneliness and isolation, helping to make the seniors’ lives less lonely. Volunteers become a special friend to people who have become socially isolated. In some instances, the goal is to help the senior become part of the community once again, to provide companionship on a regular basis to socially isolated elderly people, and to act as their link to the wider community. In some programs, the volunteer visitors serve clients for several years and end up forming the most meaningful friendships in their lives. People who run volunteer visiting programs where volunteers visit the senior at his or her house, emphasize that volunteer visiting is a very intimate experience.


Today, volunteering is more than a matter of “caring about”. Volunteering carries with important responsibilities and the potential for legal liability (because a home visitor could potentially be an exploitive individual).   Thus, most of these programs are organized visiting services. Some programs, but not all, involve trained volunteers. They are established to match a volunteer with a senior client in the community, to provide regular social contact.



Characteristics of Longstanding Visiting Programs

·       They are organized.

·       The programs focus on regular social contact.

·       They involve matching seniors and volunteers.

·       They operate on a one-to-one basis in the homes of seniors.

·       The volunteers are trained.

·       The volunteer provides a supportive friendship.

·       They can involve long term relationships.

·       The relationship can involve many different kinds of activities.


Each of these characteristics is very important because it affects how the program develops.



What Different Kind  of Volunteer Visiting Programs Offer


Target Population  Seniors  OR  Seniors and people with disabilities
Activities Chores, grocery shopping, transportation to medical appointments, phone support (helping person live independently) OR

Visits in home, going out with the senior, and/or regular phone visiting.

(Breaking isolation and loneliness)


Aim Re-integrate senior to community OR Giving the senior the opportunity to develop a friendship at home.
Types of     Visiting Activities Expected  

Conversation, reminiscing, sharing a hobby, playing board/card games


OR Going out together

Expected Length of Volunteer



Short (2-3 months) OR Long (one year or more)


A Special Relationship

People who have run long-established volunteer visiting programs point out that (by its nature) volunteer visiting can be an intensely private and intimate relationship.

First, a senior has a person coming into his or her own home. 

Second, although the person has “agreed” to the possibility of a visitor, the reality may be less welcome. Some seniors will  consider the process of being matched up with someone as intrusive and a foreign concept. Having “friends” found for you, is not something that many adults usually encounter. As some have noted, “the unspoken assumption of planned visiting of this sort is that the person cannot make friends on his or her own”. Normally we choose our friends.

Thus this kind of visiting is a very big step for a senior, and one that must be done with respect for the fact that the person may

- change his or her mind,

- may not find the match suitable,

- may actively or passively bow out of the process.


Alcohol, Social Isolation, and Volunteer Visiting

Social isolation may be one factor among many seniors experiencing alcohol problems. Some community are interested in finding out whether volunteer visiting programs might be a positive approach to helping. The answer is "Yes, in some circumstances". Volunteers will need to be trained-- not only to understand their general roles and responsibilities as friendly visitors, but also to help overcome potential negative attitudes they may have regarding people with alcohol or mental health problems (there is often an overlap between the two problems).


Groupe Harmonie: A Special Approach to Volunteering

Groupe Harmonie  in Montreal, Quebec uses supervised bénévoles (volunteers) as an important part of their outreach program for seniors experiencing alcohol problems. (Check  their website for more information)

Their program volunteering categories are

Home visits and intervention with clients Accompaniments (accompanying clients places)Phone calls to the clients To assist the financing committee members in their activities Writing and translation for the newsletter General clerical work


Volunteering criteria

No consumption problem
Good active listening capacity
Good knowledge of helping relationship
Being able to motivate and to encourage
Being patient and persevering

The volunteer is interviewed by a member of the permanent staff. If the volunteer meets the program requirements, he or she receives 3 half days of training. Also, the volunteer is required to sign a code of ethics.

When the volunteer's training is completed, a pairing between the client and the volunteer is made by the staff, considering their mutual interests. The volunteer meets the client at home, once a week for a period of 1 to 2 hours.

The volunteer works closely with Group Harmonie's permanent staff and with all the involved professionals.




[1]  This is adapted from a 1999 evaluation of a New Westminster, B.C. volunteer visiting program, prepared by Charmaine Spencer for the Seniors Well Aware Program.

[2] Cusack, S. (June, 1998) Isolated Elders Project: Phase II, A Summary Report. (Vancouver, B.C. Gerontology Research Centre, Simon Fraser University, p. 24. See  also, Cusack, S. (January, 1996) Isolated Seniors: Closer to Home Demonstration Project. New Westminster Health Department.

[3] Advocates for Care Reform (1996) Alone in a Crowd? (Vancouver, B.C.: Peanut Butter Publishing), xv.

[4] Cusack, S. supra, n. 5,  Pg. 18

[5] Ibid. p. 21

Page last updated June 23, 2002. Webmaster:


Return to

Alcohol and Seniors Home Page