Isolation and loneliness are serious problems for older adults. They become less mobile, their friends and relatives die, hearing loss and other physical limitations make it harder to communicate with others, and seniors are often reluctant to even try to make new friends. Young people, they say, are not interested, and, as for other older people, why bother, they will die soon anyway.
Breaking through these barriers is not easy. But the good news is that researchers and consumer and advocacy groups are increasingly focused on the problem, and thinking hard about solutions. Some are high-tech, others are exceedingly low-tech, but many have promise.
The issue is especially important for two reasons. First, because isolation is a special problem for seniors living at home—exactly where most insist they want to remain. Second, because loneliness seems closely linked to disease and even death.
Recent studies show that older adults who are isolated are likely to be sicker—and die sooner—than those who feel connected, through cause-and-effect between self-reported loneliness and illness is not so clear. But we do know that somewhere between 20 percent and 30 percent of older adults report they are lonely, at least some of the time.
The Gerontological Society of America’s Public Policy and Aging Report has dedicated its entire new issue to this challenge. And it is filled with important insights and possible solutions.
Two articles focus on areas where social isolation is particularly challenging—rural areas and high-crime urban communities. Lenard Kaye, director of the University of Maine’s Center on Aging, described a number of low-tech ways his largely rural state is trying to keep seniors connected. In Augusta, postal workers have been trained check in on homebound seniors. In Franklin County, sheriff’s deputies regularly look in on older adults, just to see how they are doing.
The University of Maine and the Eastern Area Agency on Aging have developed a program called Project Generations, where college students visit seniors at home and do small chores.
Other initiatives include co-housing, where older adults and younger adults share homes. Sometimes, a college student may exchange chores and a friendly face for a low-cost place to live.
In Maine and elsewhere, volunteers who deliver Meals on Wheels, also serve as friendly visitors.
I’ve written in the past about other solutions. Senior villages are a growing model for older adults to build supporting communities for one another. Cooperative transportation programs can help with rides. And faith communities can be a natural way to link frail homebound seniors to their fellow congregants. Just providing a ride to a religious service or a community meal can be a lifesaver for an older adult.
Then there is technology, which will play a part though still an uncertain one. Sara Czaja of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine’s Center on Aging, described three roles for tech.
The first is sensing and monitoring. Devices can track a senior’s physical changes and social activities to determine whether she is becoming more isolated. For example, is she using the phone or emailing less, or leaving her home less often. This information can be valuable, assuming there is someone on the other end who can do something about it. But, honestly, it is also a little creepy.
The second use of technology is to help make direct social connections. Email, Skype, and social media can help seniors communicate with friends and relatives. Still, Czaja reports that only about one-third of those 65 and older report using the Internet—though that share is rising. My guess is these technologies will be most valuable for the near future.
The third use that Czaja identifies is using technology to find information. She and other recently evaluated a program called PRISM that combined internet access with vetted sites such as NIH Senior Health, a calendar, email access, games, and the like. Her evaluation compared the online tool with a non-electronic form of the same information, such as a paper calendar and health information in a binder.
The result: A better sense of connectedness after 6 months among those using the electronic tool. However, much of added benefit faded away by 12 months.
As more of us insist on remaining in the community as we age, building social networks—whether digital or personal—will be increasingly important. This is especially true for Baby Boomers, who have few children, and whose families often live in different cities than they do.
As we age, communities are more important than ever. We know need to learn more about how to successfully build them.