Older Americans Month

Older Americans Month (OAM), which takes place in May, is a national observance that celebrates the contributions and achievements of older adults. This observance was established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy and members of the National Council of Senior Citizens when there were only 17 million Americans aged 65 and older. Now there are 50 million, and in 2030 there will be 70 million elders in the US. These are numbers we cannot deny.

In Nevada, many of us recognize the strength, wisdom, and experience that older Americans bring to our community. We understand the importance of creating an inclusive society that supports their independence and well-being. OAM nationally is led by the Administration for Community Living. The 2024 theme is Powered by Connection, which highlights the importance of social connections for health and well-being. OAM is a time to recognize older Americans’ contributions, highlight aging trends, and reaffirm commitments to serving the older adults in our communities. We all need to explore the vital role that that this year’s theme of OAM, connectedness, plays in supporting independence and aging in place by combating isolation, loneliness, and other issues. If you are familiar with my past articles here, I have written a lot about loneliness and isolation. So clearly this year’s OAM focus on connections is very powerful to me.

Lack of connectedness, being lonely and socially isolated, occurs in about 50% of elders. As I have reported in the past, it harms us in many ways – greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. This impact is worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being obese, and even physical inactivity. Social connection, the structure, function, and quality of our relationships with others, is a critical and underappreciated contributor to individual and population health, community safety, resilience, and prosperity. Clearly, we all need to promote the benefits of connecting with others. This is true today more than any other time in my life. Just look at all the hatred, dislike, anger, and killings occurring across our country with the lack of connections. We all need to make positive connections with each other.

Demographic changes over the last several decades have also provided some contributing factors. For example, family size and marriage rates have been in steady decline. The percentage of Americans living alone has also increased decade-to-decade. In 1960, single-person households accounted for only 13% of all U.S. households. In 2022, that number more than doubled, to 29% of all households.

The lack of social connection can have significant economic costs to individuals, communities, and society as well. Social isolation among older adult’s alone accounts for an estimated $7 billion in excess Medicare spending annually, largely due to increased hospital and nursing facility expenses. In the U.S., stress-related absenteeism that was attributed to loneliness cost employers an estimated $154 billion annually. The impact of social connection not only affects individuals, but also the businesses and the communities they live in. Social connection is an important social determinant of health, and more broadly, of community well-being.

Each of us can start now, in our own lives, by strengthening our connections and relationships. Our individual relationships are a source of healing. They can help us live healthier, more productive, and more fulfilled lives. Some active connection examples are: Phone an old friend you have not talked to in a long time; Visit a neighbor; Make time to share a meal; Listen to a person without the distraction of your phone; Perform an act of service; and express yourself authentically. The keys to human connection are simple, but extraordinarily powerful.

Join me in promoting the benefits of connecting with others. Here are some additional ways we can participate: Promote resources that help elders engage, like community events, social clubs, and volunteer opportunities; Connect elders with local services, such as transportation, that can help overcome obstacles to achieving or maintaining meaningful relationships; Encourage partners to host a connection-centric event or program focused on elders as mentors to youth; and/or challenge professional networks to prioritize meaningful social connections and share the benefits.

It’s not just about having someone to chat with, it’s about the transformative potential of community engagement in enhancing mental, physical, and emotional well-being. By recognizing and nurturing the role that connectedness plays, we can mitigate issues like loneliness, ultimately promoting healthy aging for more of us. We need to spread the word about the mental, physical, and emotional health benefits of social connection through individual and professional networks. We need to encourage the media, as well as the social media followers, to share their thoughts and stories of connection. In addition, we need to promote opportunities to engage others, as well as ourselves, in cultural activities, recreational programs, and interactive virtual events on social connections.

Older Americans Month needs to invite more connection into our lives by finding new passions, joining social clubs, taking classes, or trying new activities in our communities. Staying engaged in our community by giving back through volunteering, working, teaching, or mentoring will activate social connections. We also can also invest time with people to build new relationships and discover deeper connections with our families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. What better way to “add life to years”.