Why Social Isolation is Bad for Us as We Age (And What We Can Do to Combat It)
Few people are surprised to learn that the United States is an aging nation. According to the 2017 Profile of Older Americans — a data report compiled by the Administration for Community Living (ACL) – the number of people age 65-and-over was 49.2 million in 2016 and is projected to reach 98 million in the year 2060. Data from the same report also provides insights as to how older adults live in their communities.
In the year 2017, of all non-institutionalized older adults age 65 and over, 13.8 million or 28 percent lived alone, with this percentage increasing with age. Furthermore, recent survey findings reveal that older adults living alone – when compared to their peers living with others — spend less time with family members, and older men specifically express dissatisfaction with the number of friends they have.
The sizeable portion of older adults living alone is alarming given the harmful effects of social isolation – a reduction in social connectedness as measured by satisfaction derived from social ties – can have on the health of older people. Social isolation is associated with negative health effects including chronic health conditions, a weakened immune system, and depression and anxiety. Having services and supports in place to meet the needs of older adults living alone and experiencing the harmful effects of social isolation is vital.
The Administration for Community Living, an operating division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, helps meet these needs. ACL was created around the fundamental principle that all people, regardless of age or disability, should be able to live independently and fully participate in their communities. Many of ACL’s programs support home-and-community based services at the local level, and help to prevent social isolation.
Some of these programs tackle social isolation directly, through senior center activities, identifying opportunities for volunteerism and civic engagement, and resource support. For example, ACL supported programs at the local level offer many opportunities for older adults to engage in their communities such as insurance counseling and providing transportation to seniors to enable them to help fellow seniors get to the doctor or shopping. ACL programs also work to build additional capacity for supporting these efforts. For example, in 2017, ACL established engAGED: The National Resource Center for Engaging Older Adults to ensure that local aging programs have the tools and resources necessary for the development of programs that provide older adults effective ways to stay socially engaged.
Other programs help address social isolation indirectly. For example, ACL’s Older Americans Act nutrition programs provide home-delivered and congregate meals. Home-delivered meals provide social connectivity and daily informal check-ins. In many cases, the drivers may be the only contact that individual receives daily. Congregate meal programs provide meals and nutrition services conducted in a group setting, which allows for social engagement, as well as opportunities to offer information and services that help older adults live healthier lives.
ACL also supports the Eldercare Locator call center and website, which connect older adults and their caregivers with trustworthy local support resources. In 2016, the Eldercare Locator launched a campaign to raise awareness of the problem of social isolation and loneliness. It included a consumer brochure – “Expand Your Circles: Prevent Isolation and Loneliness As You Age” – offers information and resources to help older adults reduce their risk of becoming isolated or lonely.
Here are some of tips it offers:
Schedule a time each day to call a friend or visit someone
Take a class to learn something new and, at the same time, expand your circle of friends
Revisit an old hobby you’ve set aside and connect with others who share your interest
Volunteer to deepen your sense of purpose and help others
Visit your local community wellness or senior center and become involved in a wide range of interesting programs.
As the U.S. population of older adults continues to grow, we must equip them with strategies and tools to prevent and combat any social isolation they may experience as they age. These are a few ways they can begin or continue to stay socially engaged with their families and communities as they get older.
Dr. Vijeth Iyengar is a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF-STEM) at the Administration for Community Living (ACL), an operating division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). Dr. Iyengar received his doctorate from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. At ACL, Dr. Iyengar is in the Office of Supportive and Caregiver Services as an aging services program specialist, monitoring and evaluating grantees from across the nation as they implement evidence-based dementia care interventions and services at the home and community level. You can find him on Twitter at @VijethIyengar.