My dad had a meaningful career, helped raise a family of six and served as a leader of numerous civic and professional associations. He had a strong sense of purpose. During retirement, he stubbornly resisted treatment for hearing loss, and became the primary caregiver for my mom, who lived with dementia. Eventually, his broad and diverse social network dwindled, and he became socially isolated.
Even before the pandemic, many older adults, especially low-income older adults, were isolated. Now, growing numbers of people of all ages are affected. According to The Pandemic Effect: A Social Isolation Report, a pulse survey of 2,010 adults ages 18 and older recently conducted by AARP Foundation and United Health Foundation, two-thirds of adults now suffer from social isolation, 41 percent feel more anxious than usual and more than a third have felt depressed. As winter descends, and it becomes more difficult in parts of the country to gather outdoors, and our usual holiday gatherings are curtailed, social isolation may worsen.
It has never been more urgent to find solutions to this public health epidemic.
Earlier this year, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) study, sponsored by AARP Foundation, found that social isolation in older adults is linked to heart attack, stroke, depression, dementia and early death from all causes. The NAS study found that the healthcare system has an important role to play in addressing isolation, because a medical visit might be the only social contact in an isolated adult’s life. To facilitate such screening, AARP Foundation awarded a grant to OCHIN, a nonprofit health IT service provider, to support building functionality into electronic health records. That functionality can boost a providers’ ability to detect isolation among low-income older adults in federally qualified health centers and refer them to evidence-based interventions in the community.
The NAS study also recommended improving public awareness of social isolation. That’s why in October, AARP Foundation and United Health Foundation launched a public awareness campaign. Our goal was to help people assess if they or a loved one are at risk for social isolation and connect them to evidence-based solutions and community resources like those at AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect.org platform.
Nearly100,000 people have already assessed their own or a loved one’s social isolation level on Connect2Affect.org. And, we’ve added a friendly online chat feature where those who are feeling isolated or lonely can text for free, 24-7, for companionship and assistance in developing strategies to rebuild their social connections. While the tool cannot replace human contact, older adults find it helpful and comforting.
As one user said, “The chatbot taught me it's better to talk to close friends by phone instead of communicating through text message or social media.”
Like our chatbot, robotic pets can enhance an isolated person’s quality of life by providing interaction and comfort from a lifelike companion, according to studies by AARP and UnitedHealthcare. Other technology devices have proved useful, too. Through our Connected Communities program, AARP Foundation has put computer tablets and smart speakers in the hands of thousands of older affordable housing residents nationwide who’ve been confined to their apartments for months. Now they are connecting virtually to group yoga, crafts classes and church services. They video chat with faraway family and even take virtual helicopter trips to exotic destinations.
Handwritten letters are surprisingly helpful to isolated adults. Amanda Spray, NYU Grossman School of Medicine clinical associate professor of psychiatry, says that these letters provide valuable social support, “even if you can’t be there with your friend or family member, holding their hand and being by their side.”
Simple, human gestures can be powerful, too. A phone call to a neighbor or family member to check in or offer help in running errands can make a huge difference.
Fostering a Sense of Purpose
Having a sense of purpose is critical in avoiding isolation among older adults, and volunteering can be a way to rekindle it after retirement. Research demonstrates that volunteering leads to better health, lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life. Anecdotally, AARP Foundation knows that our Experience Corps volunteers, who tutor underserved elementary school students in reading, and our Tax-Aide volunteers, who help low-income adults prepare their tax returns, report great satisfaction in giving back to their communities. Many befriend and socialize with other volunteers.
Communities, too, have a role to play in solving this societal problem and intergenerational solutions are emerging. For example, young Navajos are spearheading community fundraisers, food delivery, and virtual campaigns to reach isolated residents and recruit medical volunteers to staff clinics for Native Americans.
Whatever solutions we design to build social connection, older adults from all backgrounds, who are the experts in their own lived experiences, must help create them. Oftentimes, the gifts, talents and tools to solve social isolation already exist within a community organization or within individuals in that community. Tapping into this knowledge and agency is critical for older adults and for our overall success.
One day, the pandemic will be a distant memory. But for older adults, social isolation will likely be a continuing problem. Yet I am tremendously hopeful. Families, neighbors, and caregivers are increasingly aware of the critical role healthy social connections play in our lives and are reaching out to isolated adults more frequently. Organizations are collaborating to implement evidence-based solutions linking isolated older adults to the help they need, including through technology. Communities are leveraging older adults’ sense of purpose through volunteer programs that can help them build new social networks, increase health and provide satisfaction. Working together across sectors is our pathway to connection.
Lisa Marsh Ryerson is the president of AARP Foundation, in Washington, DC.