Posted on January 21, 2020
From planning intergenerational concerts to organizing healthy living demonstrations to hosting holiday meal get-togethers, age-friendly leaders in North Jersey are working to make sure older adults have opportunities to remain connected to their communities.
Soon those community leaders may have new allies and new strategies to turn to.
Thanks to a newly adopted law, the New Jersey Department of Human Services will conduct an extensive look at the growing epidemic of social isolation and the health threat it poses to older adults and others.
The legislation – passed overwhelmingly in the Legislature and signed by Governor Murphy on Jan. 21 – calls for a study of the causes and frequency of social isolation and the resources available to combat it.
Some researchers have compared the health dangers of social isolation to that of smoking and obesity, linking it to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety, with older adults particularly at risk. The AARP Foundation estimates 1 in 5 Americans over 65 is socially isolated.
The age-friendly movement works to ensure people can age with dignity and remain actively engaged in their communities as long as possible. Achieving that goal means advocating for more housing choices, more transportation options, more walkable communities – and more ways to keep older adults connected to others.
Our alliance includes many professionals and providers who work with isolated older adults, and the stories they share are heartbreaking – of older adults being victimized by telephone scams, largely because they appreciated a voice to talk to. Or others who are living with the television as their only companion.
For many, the volunteers who bring their daily meals might be the only face they see all day, and the social worker who calls to check up on them the only voice they hear in a day.
Some older adults become isolated after a health setback, the death of a spouse or other loved ones, or because they can no longer drive. Others isolate themselves for more complex reasons, such as undiagnosed mental illnesses, undetected cognitive losses, or personality changes brought on by declining health and mobility. Some lonely older adults were introverts to begin with, and their small worlds became even smaller as years passed.
Concern about increasing rates of loneliness and its negative health impact is growing around the world, with the United Kingdom last year appointing a “Minister of Loneliness.”
Recent studies of social isolation demonstrate an increase among all age groups. That’s happening in part because social media and digital communications are too often replacing face-to-face interaction,something that becomes a more essential ingredient of good health when people get older.
A comprehensive study like this could offer leaders more strategies and insight to those who spend their days trying to serve isolated and homebound populations.
The report that DHS has been directed to issue will compile all data and available research on social isolation, not just studying the rates in older-adult populations, but also among people with disabilities, those suffering from mental illness, veterans, active military personnel and other populations the department’s research identifies as vulnerable.
The DHS researchers will be asked to speak with members of those vulnerable populations, as well as with their families, their caregivers and the professionals and provider organizations that work to assist them. They’ll also look at practices being used to alleviate loneliness in New Jersey’s communities and in other states.
Our affiliated communities are working to ward off social isolation through a variety of methods: organizing intergenerational gatherings; offering ride-service discounts or promoting transportation options so older residents don’t have to skip attending social events or their favorite classes; publishing resource guides so that vulnerable older adults with health or mobility challenges can find the services needed to keep them engaged and active; sparking community-level conversations, from the meeting rooms of libraries to the chambers of municipal buildings, to help make older residents more visible and heard.
Many more resources are needed, such as easier-to-access mental health care and increased social services at the community level. Community leaders could help by pushing to increase volunteerism – both to find people to visit the homebound and to identify ways isolated older adults could take on volunteer roles of their own, as a way to make new connections.
What’s clear, though, is that solutions are needed not just at the community level, but also at the county, state and national levels.
We hope this new study helps connect the dots so we can all work together to re-connect more people to their communities.