Social isolation was identified as a hidden policy crisis in the United States during the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) annual conference held earlier
this month. Several of the 2018 Innovation & Achievement Awards were tied to aspects of reducing social isolation for older adults and sponsors highlighted ways that their products could help reduce risks associated with isolation. Gerontologists have also identified social isolation as a growing concern in the U.S. In the Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) 2017 Public Policy & Aging Report , isolated older adults were identified as being dangerously ignored and invisible in any setting (1). Social isolation is most common among unmarried older adults who do not participate in social groups, who are retired, lack transportation, and who have physical health impairments, such as hearing or mobility loss (2). The danger for those who are socially isolated is that they are at higher risk for negative health consequences than their socially connected peers. Socially connected individuals typically have better access to health care due to transportation support, quicker response to their health concerns from within their social network, and can create opportunities to strengthen their mental and physical health through social activities and engagement. Older adults who are not connected to social networks experience the premature decline in their mental health (e.g., dementia, cognitive decline, depression), physical health (e.g., obesity), and premature death (2).
What is being done to reduce social isolation?
- Transportation: While it’s probably not a surprise that social isolation occurs quite frequently for those without access to transportation, technological advancements in accessing transportation may be a solution. Ride-sharing services (e.g., Lyft, Uber) are a promising new development in easing transportation concerns for isolated older adults. Only 4% of adults over the age of 65 have ever used such a service (3), which leads to a great growth opportunity. However, these services are more available in urban settings, leaving socially isolated older adults in rural settings with access limitations. Similarly, autonomous, self-driving vehicles may show promise for better access to transportation for older adults, but these services are still years away from being successfully established in rural areas. Therefore, programs and services that can be established through volunteer networks may be the best, right now solution. This is low-tech to be sure, but it may be the best way to address this issue right now. Technology for transportation connections do, however, provide great promise as they advance over time.
- “Warmline” services: Obviously increased social connection for isolated individuals reduces social isolation. Pilot programs are being developed to establish “warmline”
services where volunteers make regular, routine phone calls to isolated older adults simply to connect with them. This approach may be a promising, inexpensive way to support isolated individuals with personal connections as well as identification of health and service needs. Studies are underway to identify how such services can improve health through connectivity.
- Connect with Area Agencies on Aging: Iowa’s Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) also work to combat social isolation through its services and programs. Home-delivered meal programs are often at the front line of reducing isolation. During a delivery, the older adult has face-to-face contact with the person(s) delivering the meal. This social interaction might be the only human contact that an older adult has during the entire day. Individuals who deliver the meals may be able to identify potential health or safety concerns during these interactions. For example, if the meal recipient has not bathed in a number of days, appears to be depressed, or is behaving uncharacteristically, the person delivering the meal can share their concerns with AAA staff who can connect with the recipient of the meal.
Kelly Butts-Elston, CEO at Connections Area Agency on Aging, stated that one of her agency’s clients believed he was alive today because of the home-delivered meal program. “Our delivery driver found our client unresponsive in the home during the delivery. The driver called for a rescue squad to take him to the hospital. Ever since then he has identifies the meal delivery driver as a ‘friend’ and he has adopted a healthier nutrition lifestyle. The program reduced his isolation and helped him become healthier.” Services and supports can be offered to isolated individuals to reduce loneliness and improves their overall health. Other AAA services that reduce social isolation are adult day care programs, group respite programs, congregate meal sites, and family caregiver services. Iowa AAAs strive to enhance their services to meet the unique needs of their communities. For example, Aging Resources of Central Iowa engages in elder refugee outreach strategies and Connections AAA provides care transition support to help address social isolation. All of Iowa’s AAAs contribute to reducing social isolation through their programs and services.
What can you do?
Calls for action include additional research, policy development, and enhanced services that address the social isolation crisis. You can contact your elected officials and ask them how they plan to address social isolation for older adults. Ask them how they can go about supporting research that advances the development of evidence-based programs and services that reverse the negative health effects of social isolation. Finally, engage and support your local AAA in their efforts to address social isolation. Volunteers and resources are always welcome in assisting the AAAs with their programs.
- Hudson, R.B. (2017). Lack of social connectedness and its consequences. Public Policy & Aging Report, 27(4), 121-123.
- Holt-Lunstad, J. (2017). The potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness: Prevalence, epidemiology, and risk factors. Public Policy & Aging Report, 27(4), 127-130.
- Ryerson, L.M. (2017). Innovations in social connectedness. Public Policy & Aging Report, 27(4), 124-126.