How big of a problem is social isolation among older adults?
I had the pleasure of presenting to Rush Generations members last month, where both Dr. Alexander Sasha Rackman and I both addressed social isolation from our individual perspectives: Dr. Rackman being a geriatrician and myself being a gerontologist and social worker.
We all should be aware of risk factors and steps that we can take to increase awareness.
Let me first start by saying that social isolation is not just a problem experienced by older adults. It can occur among younger and older people alike.
So, I hope that the take-aways you get from this post will help you initiate a dialogue with friends or family or a primary care physician that helps get someone on the path of either reducing or even preventing social isolation from happening.
I have found that people who are socially isolated often do not even recognize it is happening to them, before it is too late.
Dr. Rackman made a very important distinction between isolation and loneliness.
He described loneliness as subjective in that it is how people perceive their situation and whether they feel isolated.
He described isolation as objective, where an individual experiences less social engagement with others than they would prefer, ultimately impacting their quality of life (Public Policy & Aging Report, 2017, Gerontological Society of America).
Hence, one might feel lonely but not be isolated.
Someone who is isolated lacks meaningful and unfulfilling relationships in their lives, has a minimal number of social contacts, and doesn’t feel like they belong.
Some of the risk factors for social isolation include:
- a decrease in mobility that limits engagement in social activities
- less exposure to opportunities for building relationships
- fear of falling or unmanaged incontinence that causes one not to leave their home
- limited family or friends, family or friends who live at a distance, being unmarried, and living alone
These risk factors may come as no surprise, but what is surprising is that social isolation is on the rise. Yet, these risk factors have the potential to be addressed if only people were aware of the issue and addressing the issue.
The challenge is that social isolation can go unnoticed if no one is paying attention.
Reports vary with the number of older adults who are social isolated. Some numbers have been as high as forty-three percent (Nicholson, Molony, Fennie, Shellman, & McCorkle, 2010; Smith & Hirdes, 2009).
The Administration on Aging reports that about twenty-nine percent of older adults live alone. Well, since we know that living alone is a risk factor, we, as a society should be thinking of ways to engage and connect these individuals.
If the previous numbers don’t “jump start” you to begin paying attention to yourself and those around you, perhaps the following findings will:
- Social isolation is twice as likely to cause premature death in older adults. The mortality rate of socially isolated older adults is comparable to that of smokers.
- Social isolation is both bad for one’s health and is costly. AARP and Stanford University found that that the lack of social contacts among people with Medicare cost an estimated $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending.
Forty percent of adults admit to being lonely. Reducing isolation could possibly reduce loneliness and vice versa.
Here are a few resources to help an older adult stay connected:
H.O.M.E.'s Intergenerational Housing Program is designed to offer engagement that reduces isolation and increases quality of life. As a result, our residents often report that their health improves after they move into our buildings. Residents are also offered opportunities to attend community outings including movies, museums, and shopping. In many instances, our residents refer to residential managers, coordinators, and neighbors as the “H.O.M.E. family,” an extension of their own family and support system.
Find out more about our program and how you can get involved or support us.