The U.S. Surgeon General published a report in 2023, that the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the prevalence of social isolation as a major public health concern among several age categories outlining impacts on citizens and a national strategy to build social connections. The report indicated, "Physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connections include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connections increases risk of premature death by more than 60%. with more than one in five adults and more than one in three young adults living with a mental illness in the U.S., addressing loneliness and isolation is critical in order to fully address the mental health crisis in America."
Older adults are susceptible to social isolation because as people age, they are more likely to develop chronic pain and diseases along with limitations in mobility, hearing, vision, memory and cognition. Many have experienced the death of a spouse, close friend and family member along with adult children who may live far away geographically. Retired, older adults reduced regular engagement with coworkers and left behind long term social connections. These factors put older adults at a higher risk for prolonged social isolation or the feeling of loneliness.
The partnership for Public Health (PHH) recently reported results of a social isolation study among NH older adults conducted in 2022 in which 872 participated in an older adult survey.
- Over 55% admit to feeling lonely often or sometimes.
- It was reported that the age group of 60-64 were more likely to feel lonely than those in older age groups, especially those aged 85 and older. This age group is adjusting to a new life stage, and many are retiring and in a caregiver role.
- Men reported feeling twice as likely to experience loneliness than women.
- 55% of those who responded reported living alone all or part of the year, exceeding the national average. Those reporting living alone all or part of the year were more likely to feel lonely compared to those who live with others during the year.
- Existing services often do not cater to those involved in caregiving or those that live with a disability or chronic disease. Many reported not participating in community events due to health conditions.
- Older adults reported that where you live matters. Resources are variable and inconsistent across the state. The long NH winter months keep people inside with fewer services and lack of transportation options decreased the likeliness of social connection with their communities.
- Many reported that they would consider programs and resources, but information is not easy to find. Respondents stated not knowing how to use the internet or computer was a barrier and not having access to the internet was challenging. 24% said they would consider using technology to participate in games or activities with others. Many reported being open to and familiar with using digital devices so this may present an opportunity for social engagement for some older adults.
- Respondents reported that they ease loneliness by searching for new activities, joining a senior center, exercise class, church or club, visiting someone or someone visiting them, calling or emailing family and friends and engaging in social media to connect with others.
Some good news
Older adults responded that they are willing to create new social connections but in order to reduce anxiety and create a positive experience these suggestions were made:
- Not everyone wants to join large formal groups. Opportunities for more intimate experiences in small group settings or one on one activities where they can share their interests and talents with a few people are more comfortable.
- Not all interactions have to be formal. Something casual like informal conversation, brief phone call or natural connection can be meaningful.
- Services that made special efforts to connect during the pandemic were appreciated, even if the techniques for engagement were new.
- There are organizations that older adults fundamentally trust. These include libraries, churches, community nursing organizations and town service centers. Affiliating with these organizations could help build trust with new initiatives or programs.
PPH, Social Isolation Among Older Adults in Community Settings in New Hampshire, July 2023: www.wellnesslinknh.org
US Surgeon General, Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation. The US Surgeon General's advisory on the healing effects of social connection and community. US Public Health Services, Rockville, MD, 2023.