Remember how easy it was to make friends when you were younger? There were endless
opportunities to develop new relationships: high school clubs, college dorms, new jobs, neighborhood groups and professional associations. But as we age, social networks shrink. There are fewer opportunities to connect.
Now there’s new cause for concern over social isolation in older adults. Numerous studies show loneliness is linked to negative physical and mental health effects such as a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression and increased risks of hospital readmission and falls. And new research presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention this summer shows that loneliness, social isolation and living alone increases our risk of premature death at a rate similar to smoking or obesity. The bottom line is that loneliness is hazardous to your health and it has big implications for Westchester’s aging population.
A GROWING EPIDEMIC
How serious is it? In an age when we are more technologically connected than ever, rates of loneliness are actually on the rise. More than 44 million adults age 45 and older experience chronic loneliness, according to AARP research. It most often affects people in old age, beginning at about age 80. The deaths of spouses and friends, mobility issues, hearing loss, lack of transportation and lack of opportunities for social interactions are contributing factors. For older women, loneliness may be particularly acute; almost half of women older than 75 live alone, federal data show. Living alone doesn’t always equal loneliness, but it increases the risk of social isolation.
As health care providers, as business owners and as responsible citizens, we must address loneliness as we would any other chronic condition or disease. At United Hebrew of New Rochelle, we take great care to identify those at risk for loneliness and connect them to resources to help. But there’s much we can do as a community.
SCREEN FOR LONELINESS
The AARP Foundation has launched a campaign called Connect2Affect, to spread awareness of the connection between loneliness and health, and it offers an online self-assessment for individuals to measure how socially isolated they are. It’s a helpful tool and one that may serve as an example for health care providers. For example, our clinicians and staff routinely ask questions about social connections of our residents in our nursing home, assisted living and independent housing facilities. In addition, our home health staff engages their patients around this issue. Loneliness can be measured like a vital sign, and if health care providers are routinely assessing seniors’ risk factors for loneliness and social isolation, they can recommend appropriate interventions when necessary.
The good news about loneliness is that it is transient, not permanent. Researchers say increasing social connections can reduce the risk of early death from loneliness and improve the health and well-being of all seniors. One benefit of residing in a senior living community is that residents are offered an array of activities and clubs to suit a variety of interests, such as gourmet cooking, art, dance, fitness, dining out, current events, bridge, history and more. It seems to work for us; the population of seniors living past the age of 100 on our campus has grown so large we have launched a Centenarians Society.
Seniors in Westchester are also fortunate to have the services of the county’s Department of Senior Programs, whose website includes links to senior centers throughout the county, plus a calendar of countywide events of interest to seniors. Local centers such as the Hugh Doyle Senior Center in New Rochelle host classes and clubs in computer skills, arts, exercise and more. There’s even a vacation club, with day and overnight trips to suit a variety of tastes.
We should work together to ensure our aging parents, patients, neighbors and friends know about communities and organizations that support efforts to socially engage seniors.
CREATE TARGETED CONNECTIONS
It may not be enough to make activities universally available. Because of the stigma often associated with loneliness, seniors may not readily seek outside help. Additionally, seniors may not be socially isolated but they still may feel lonely. We have over 600 seniors living in close proximity to one another on our campus and one of our strategies to proactively connect them to our community is our “buddy” program, which establishes a mentor-like relationship to support individuals in learning about the many enriching programs we offer. These relationships are focused on connecting residents to groups and opportunities within our community. We, like many other senior care organizations in Westchester, also offer opportunities for individuals in the greater community to “adopt” one of our residents and provide companionship.
A most effective intervention to combat loneliness is one that shifts lonely people’s attention and concern away from themselves and toward the greater good. When they create something for someone else, they will feel good about making a positive contribution. United Hebrew’s Community Service Club regularly engages our residents, including those with dementia, in service projects that benefit local organizations. Often, representatives from those organizations let our seniors know who the beneficiaries are, thus extending the community connection further.
For adult children with aging parents, volunteering together is an excellent way to connect with each other and the community. For individuals with time to volunteer, consider visiting an elderly person on a regular basis. Join a weekly card game at a senior center. Find out about the myriad opportunities to engage with older adults through Volunteer New York! Teach an elderly person how to use Skype or FaceTime and help them stay in touch with distant family members.
We must connect our seniors to opportunities to get fit. Besides the obvious benefits of exercise on health, fitness programs offer another opportunity for social connections. Staying healthy and active also increases one’s strength, which contributes to mobility. Fall prevention turns out to be isolation prevention, because a fall can lead to disabling injuries and cause someone to be homebound. Seniors can stay agile and fit with exercise tailored to every fitness level, from yoga and walking to Zumba and dance.
Social isolation is an issue that’s receiving more and more attention. By talking about loneliness with our patients, our employees, our aging parents and our families, we can raise awareness of the connection between loneliness and good health. In addition, we can take steps to shore up our own social connections as we age, to develop and maintain meaningful social relationships. When we do that, we also shore up our foundation for a strong community and greater health and well-being for all of us.
Rita Mabli is president and CEO of United Hebrew of New Rochelle, a multiservice campus of comprehensive care in that Sound Shore city. She can be reached at 914-632-2804 or firstname.lastname@example.org.