I have written a lot about isolation in the past, but it is a critical issue for elders, and we need to deal with it. In a 2010 AARP survey, 25% of respondents ages 70 or older said they felt lonely and isolated. Recently, AARP completed a report on the “Framework for Isolation in Adults Over 50.” A person’s lack of social connectedness is measured by the quality, type, frequency, and emotional satisfaction of social ties. Social isolation can impact health and quality of life, as measured by an individual’s physical, social, and psychological health; ability and motivation to access adequate support for themselves; and the quality of the environment and community in which they live.
The primary risk factors associated with isolation include: living alone, mobility or sensory impairment, major life transitions, socioeconomic status (low income, limited resources), being a caregiver for someone with severe impairment, psychological or cognitive vulnerabilities, location (rural, unsafe or inaccessible neighborhood/community), small social network and/or inadequate social support, language (non-English speaking), and membership in a vulnerable group. Isolation can also be triggered by the change/loss of social networks, social roles, physical health, mental health, and resources.
In a recent study, the National Council on Aging estimated that 17% of all Americans over the age of 65 are isolated because they live alone and face one or more barriers related to geographic location, language, or disability. According to the findings in the report, the most prominent individual-level risk factors for older adults who become isolated are living alone, having a physical impairment, losing a partner and/or close friend, and losing an important role such as employment.
The U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, M.D., plans to introduce a three-part framework to address loneliness in the US, as about half of Americans are experiencing loneliness at any given time, and social disconnection can lead to an increased risk of mental health and physical issues in addition to premature death. Social connection must be a top public health priority and “will require reorienting ourselves, our communities, and our institutions to prioritize human connection and healthy relationships,” Dr. Murthy writes. “As it has built for decades, the epidemic of loneliness and isolation has fueled other problems that are killing us and threaten to rip our country apart,” Murthy wrote in a New York Times op-ed. Murthy also wrote that about one in every two Americans experiences loneliness at any given time, noting that being socially disconnected can increase the risk of anxiety and depression. Besides mental health concerns, the surgeon general wrote that loneliness can also increase the risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke, and also said that the risk of a premature death due to loneliness is even comparable to the risk of smoking daily.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the epidemic of isolation and loneliness as people shuttered their homes and many switched to remote work during the pandemic. In fact, many workers have stayed with working at home even though the pandemic is officially over. A study published last year found that loneliness increased globally as a result of the pandemic, with the rate of loneliness rising five percent. Dr. Murthy outlined a three-step framework to address loneliness in his op-ed, writing that they must strengthen social infrastructure, like expanding school programs and promoting healthy workplace practices. He also wrote that Americans must rethink their relationship with technology and focus on rebuilding connections with one another to fix loneliness. How often are you in a restaurant and you look over at the other tables and all the people sitting together are on their phones, not interacting with each other?
The surgeon general also described his own struggles with experiencing loneliness, saying that he turned to his family to help him get past it. “During one of my lowest lows, the people in my life patched me up with their acts of love and connection. It is still a work in progress, but years later, in my second tenure in public service, I am making a much bigger effort to build and maintain my relationships,” Murthy wrote. “I am a better father, husband, friend and surgeon general as a result.”
When we are experiencing loneliness and isolation, Viktor Frankl’s words are right on: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” It is within our power to get beyond the negativity of isolation. We can reach out to family or friends virtually or in person every day. Making that contact is like taking medicine or exercising. We can join a club or spiritual community, or become a volunteer. Another avenue to deal with your isolation is to secure a pet. I myself, got a pet dog that provides me with a tremendous amount of company and love. Finally, there are many services in the community that provide friendly volunteers and social activities that help deal with isolation. For example, we could go to a Senior Center for lunch or participate in a variety of activities which facilitates having conversations with people, which in turn stimulate your brain and make you feel better. We have the power to secure social contact and connections, which deal with isolation. What better way to add life to years?