Impact Stories

Rediscovering Purpose, Connection, and Creativity in Retirement Years through Social Prescribing in British Columbia

About this campaign

This marks the inaugural article in a special Social Prescribing storytelling campaign commemorating the International Day of Older Persons and National Seniors Day in Canada. It symbolizes a collaborative effort among early adopters and leaders of Social Prescribing in Canada, aimed at elevating the prominence of the initiative. This campaign seeks to articulate the profound impact of Social Prescribing in enhancing the lives of older adults contending with feelings of loneliness and isolation.

What is Social Prescribing?

Social Prescribing embodies a healthcare approach that recognizes the profound influence of social and environmental factors on an individual’s overall well-being. This approach involves facilitating connections between older adults and non-medical services and activities within their communities.

Older adults may receive referrals to community-based Social Prescribing programs from their primary care physicians or other healthcare practitioners. Social Prescribing Community Connectors then engage with the seniors, establishing connections to a diverse array of local, non-clinical services provided by community agencies.

These wellness plans can encompass various activities, including participation in community groups, clubs, or classes, engaging in exercise sessions, joining walking groups, sports clubs, art classes, or music therapy, and exploring volunteer opportunities. Social Prescribing has been shown to lead to improved mental health, a reduction in social isolation, an overall enhancement in the quality of life, and a decreased reliance on medical interventions.

James’ Story

James MacDonald possesses a deep passion for music, yet he had not picked up his guitar in two decades. The 68-year-old resident of Surrey, BC, rediscovered his long-neglected hobby during his retirement years, turning to art and culture as a means to combat the depression and anxiety that had taken hold of him.

“It’s a marvelous pastime. I tend to ruminate quite a bit, but when I’m engrossed in playing music, listening to it, or performing with others, my mind is solely focused on that activity. For me, that’s the beauty of it,” James remarked.

James embarked on this journey of self-discovery after opening up to his Nurse Practitioner about his mental health challenges. The healthcare practitioner subsequently referred him to a social worker at the Axis Primary Care Clinic, who, in turn, connected James with the Brella Community Services Society.

This non-profit organization, dedicated to serving seniors in Surrey and White Rock, is driven by a mission to connect isolated adults, foster social skills, provide recreational activities, delay institutionalized living, and contribute to emotional and physical well-being.

The organization stands as one of the pioneering agencies in British Columbia to facilitate a Social Prescribing program, which is administered by United Way British Columbia and funded by the Province of BC.  

James was referred to this program and promptly received assistance in securing more suitable low-income rental accommodations before delving into wellness initiatives designed to improve his mental health.

Expressing his interest in music, Brella Community Services encouraged James to establish and lead a mental wellness support group that employed music, visual art, and poetry as avenues for fostering discussion and supporting fellow seniors grappling with depression, anxiety, and social isolation.

James MacDonald is pictured playing his guitar at Brella Community Services in Surrey, BC.

“The objective was to help people rediscover and appreciate their love for art,” James explained. “It proved to be highly therapeutic for many participants.”

This support group, named ‘Happy Hearts,’ held weekly themed sessions during the spring of 2023, focusing on topics such as gratitude, resilience, and generosity.

James marked the theme of gratitude by performing Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World.” James attests to the substantial improvement in his mental health since becoming a participant of a Social Prescribing program, which has offered an alternative to traditional medications. “One of my motivations for participating was to explore alternative coping mechanisms for my situation.”

Funding from the Social Prescribing initiative was also allocated to provide tickets for ‘Happy Hearts’ participants to attend a stand-up comedy festival and a symphony orchestra performance.

Social Prescribing Enhances Seniors’ Mental Wellness and Human Connection

Janice Gunn has personally witnessed the transformative effect of Social Prescribing on older adults experiencing feelings of loneliness, isolation, and a lack of purpose or self-motivation.

Janice serves as the Social Prescribing Community Connector at Brella Community Services. According to her, Social Prescribing represents a bridge from primary care to community-based services, offering comprehensive support to individuals.

“It addresses the profound issue of loneliness. People yearn for a sense of connection,” Janice explains. “The group dynamic is so important.”

Janice attests to the power of ‘Happy Hearts’ and its ability to improve the mental health and overall well-being of seniors through the medium of music.

“It transforms the entire atmosphere. You can almost hear people’s hearts beating. It creates a heightened level of vulnerability; that’s the essence of music—it’s a form of expression that demands a degree of vulnerability. It’s truly special.”

Janice dedicates her efforts to connecting individuals with community resources and services that provide both practical and emotional support. She collaborates with clients to formulate wellness plans and assists them in making positive changes in their lives.

“I’ve not only gained insights into available resources but have also cultivated relationships with other service providers. We’ve even initiated collaborative efforts to address the needs of seniors,” she notes.

Janice lauds James for proactively taking charge of his mental wellness and championing an initiative like “Happy Hearts” to aid others. She underscores that acts of service represent a crucial component of the Social Prescribing movement, which originated in the United Kingdom. “As human beings, we inherently seek a sense of belonging and community.”

Social Prescribing alleviates pressure on the healthcare system

Canada’s population is undergoing a significant demographic shift, with nearly one in five Canadians (18.5%) now aged 65 and older, according to Statistics Canada. By 2031, the entire baby boomer generation, including its youngest members born in 1965, will have reached the age of 65.

Dr. Grace Park, a respected family physician and Regional Medical Director for Community Health Services within the Fraser Health Authority, points to promising early research suggesting that Social Prescribing can lead to a notable decrease in emergency room visits and hospitalizations among older adults.

Dr. Grace Park is a family doctor and Regional Medical Director for Community Health Services at the Fraser Health Authority in BC.

“We often see older adults who are isolated, and because of their isolation, they are at risk of developing depression, dementia, falls with no one to call, inappropriate diets, all those elements that prevent healthy aging. The Social Prescribing scheme, being able to alleviate some of those social factors, is bound to help a person have a better quality of life and health,” explains Dr. Park.

Dr. Park, who is not directly involved in James’ case, emphasizes that by tackling the underlying social factors affecting a senior’s health and promoting their well-being within their community, there can be a substantial impact on healthcare utilization.

“When we look at people that are socially isolated in the community, we have identified four themes as to why they have become isolated. It could be financial, physical, cultural, or psychological,” she highlights. Social Prescribing helps to remove those barriers to connecting with the community.

In Dr. Park’s view, James’ story serves as an inspiring illustration of the impact Social Prescribing can have.  

“I think that volunteering, leading the Happy Hearts program and having a purpose in life would have been tremendously positive in terms of giving James a sense of confidence and value in his life and improving his depression. That support for self-management, support for healthy living and enhancing quality of life is what Social Prescribing brought to the table for James,” she concludes.

The Social Prescribing Movement is Growing

Currently, there are 19 community agencies in BC overseeing United Way BC’s Healthy Aging Social Prescribing program, which served 1,434 seniors during the 2022-23 period. To learn more, click here.

United Way BC is collaborating with the Canadian Institute for Social Prescribing, Canadian Red Cross, the Alliance of Healthier Communities, the Older Adult Centres’ Association of Ontario, and Healthy Aging Alberta to raise the profile of Social Prescribing in Canada through a series of initiatives, including this storytelling campaign.

Non-profit organizations work closely with the healthcare sector, such as the Fraser Health Authority, to develop and promote Social Prescribing initiatives that prioritize health equity, community leadership, and collaboration. Additional Social Prescribing resources from our partner agencies can be accessed below:

Watch Below: Learn about the benefits and impact of social prescribing through the voices of Primary Healthcare Providers, staff, volunteer link ambassadors and participants at Seniors Active Living Centres across Ontario through the OACAO’s Social Prescribing video.