The Loneliness Epidemic: How can communities keep our elders engaged and connected?

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Excerpt from “A Charlie Brown Valentine”

The Issue

There is an epidemic of loneliness among older adults in the United States and around the world.

More than half of elderly people live alone, a majority of these in the same suburban communities where they have lived for decades. However, many of these communities are not designed to support the needs of aging members to keep them engaged and connected which is vital to one’s health and well-being.

As a result, over 40% of senior citizens experience loneliness, and it is negatively affecting their quality of life. 

  • Loneliness is a common source of “distress, suffering, and impaired quality of life” for adults older than 60.

  • Loneliness is a predictor of “functional decline and death.”

  • Loneliness has a comparable risk factor for early death to smoking 15 cigarettes a day!


Fact sheet on elder loneliness:

Source: Masonic Charitable Foundation

How is loneliness measured?

Dr. Daniel Russell at UCLA developed a 30-question “Loneliness Scale” to measure just how lonely a person is.

Below is a 10-question sample used by the AARP. Take the Loneliness Quiz to measure your own loneliness!


The Causes

What causes social isolation and loneliness?

  • Poor physical or mental health

  • Poorly designed communities

  • The loss of a friend or partner

  • A depleted social network

  • Limited opportunities to engage with others

  • Pandemic lockdown and quarantine requirements

Each of these disadvantages puts a person at high risk for social isolation and loneliness which then puts them at high risk for mental health issues and disease.

 


The Response: Adopt-an-Elder

I would like to begin a community programming initiative called “Adopt an Elder” to support the mental health of our growing elderly population to keep them engaged, active, and connected. Staying socially active and engaged in activities helps to prevent depression and improve overall health and well-being. 

Elderly community residents will be “Matched” with families in the community. These families will be encouraged to reach out regularly and to schedule activities with their adopted elders. Participants will focus on engaging and connecting with their adopted elders and will do their best to help them be active.

(Image: Paul Rogers for the New York Times)

Promoting social engagement and helping seniors maintain interpersonal relationships can reduce depression and improve health outcomes.

Engagement

Being engaged is one of the building blocks of well-being. Engagement occurs on several levels, such as emotional and physical, and results in being “present” and experiencing “flow.”

  • Volunteer together at a local charity
  • Take your elder shopping
  • Go to a museum
  • Participate in community improvement programs
  • Watch a TV series together
 

Meaningful Connection

Well-being is improved not just through social contact, but through “meaningful” contact. By “adopting” one another, the relationship can gain importance and meaning over time by continuing to engage with one another and to have experiences and activities together.

  • Have a weekly card game
  • Cook a monthly meal together
  • Listen to music together
  • Create art together
  • Share in a gratitude practice

Activity

Staying active helps both physical and mental well-being. Plus, exposure to sunlight increases vitamin-D which is really important for mental health.

  • Take a walk
  • Play pickleball
  • Play golf
  • Work in the garden
  • Go fishing

For the relationships to be meaningful, there must be reciprocity or give-and-take. This means that the families must be open to learning and receiving from the elder as much as the elder is receiving from them. You might be surprised how much you can learn from your elders! 


Take Action: Commit to Connect

Administration for Community Living

I would love to hear from you in supportive and constructive ways. Feedback on any part of this project is welcome in the comment box below. If you have further ideas on how to take action to help end elder isolation, please share them by clicking on the “Engage and Connect” button below. 

>In what ways do you interact with and support the elderly members of your community?

>How can you take action and connect with the elders in your community?

Thank you for viewing my project!

Works Cited

20 Comments

20 comments

  1. As an elder I have great sympathy for this cause. I am fortunate to have a partner and family…however too many of us elders cannt share in this.

  2. Reed,
    Your report sheds light on an important problem in our world. Covid 19 has made it even worse. I am one of the elderly myself but am lucky to have a good social network. We all need to reach out to others who need support.
    Be a kind human.

  3. Great job! This is a really important issue you have discovered. I like your ideas and hope you keep up with this initiative.

    1. Thank you, Reed. As one of those “older persons”, it is heartening to discover that the younger generation is concerned about this problem which has obviously gotten much worse during this past year. Perhaps one positive aspect of the pandemic is learning that the nation feels protective of its senior citizens.

  4. Reed, your personal story of your own grandparents is a very compelling place to start – thank you for your thoughtful consideration of this global problem. I agree with Stacey and urge you to keep up with this initiative as you offer a model of engagement we should all follow.

  5. It is a great presentation. Those not as fortunate as we are need an outsider to intervene and assist them. It’s wonderful someone your age is seeing the situation and understands the importance of addressing it.

  6. Hey! Great job on your presentation! This is a really important topic considering that more than 40% of senior citizens experience loneliness. I recently read a research paper that stated that there are 3 dimensions of loneliness in the elderly, absence of a person who provides emotional support, absence of a sympathy group that they see regularly and enjoy being around, and the absence of an active network group that provides support by being a group and how these 3 dimensions have intensified during the pandemic. I also really like how you included your personal connection! I think that the ways in which I can interact with the elderly in my community are through volunteering at a local old age home and creating more meaningful connections, like you stated, with the elderly in my life. I think that your initiative can create positive change and impact!

  7. I think this is a super important issue and I’m happy that you have identified it and have an approach to start to tackle it. We can learn so much from our elders and they deserve our attention and respect. Think about how much life has changed as they have grown older. No mobile phones and social media when they were teenagers!

  8. Reed; what a brilliant presentation! Extremely insightful and helpful for a community of people who need the help to avoid depression and loneliness.

  9. Reed: your report is brilliant with great insight into a growing epidemic! Most seniors are overlooked and end up feeling like outsiders, especially when they have very few family members left and few friends. I think you have hit upon the key elements that people need to know about this and without a doubt some meaningful interaction with people of all ages can help to build some bridges and understanding of the personal experiences of some elders!

  10. Reed, Thank you! This report and video is informative and fantastic. Caring for the elderly in our culture IS undervalued. I appreciate your reminder especially as the large cohort of “baby boomers” age. Your is a reminder that we can do better – both morally and with business opportunity in mind – going forward,
    Vicki

  11. Reed, Thank you! This report and video is informative and fantastic. Caring for the elderly in our culture IS undervalued. I appreciate your reminder especially as the large cohort of “baby boomers” age. Your is a reminder that we can do better – both morally and with business opportunity in mind – going forward,
    Vicki

  12. Really enlightening. I had no idea that isolation and loneliness were so devastating for our elderly populations. Thank you for bringing the issue to our attention!

  13. Hey Reed,

    I thought your topic was really important and I enjoyed reading your project. Many elderly people that I know personally are isolated due to the reasons you listed above.

    >In what ways do you interact with and support the elderly members of your community?
    I interact with elderly members of my community in a few different ways. Firstly, I’m a part of a youth band that plays music in elderly homes on a monthly basis. I always have a great time interacting with elderly people there, and I definitely think music helps make them feel slightly less isolated. In addition to actively volunteering, I also try my best to keep touch with my grandparents. I regularly call and plan activities with them in order to make them happy and keep them active.

    >How can you take action and connect with the elders in your community?
    I think there are many ways to take action/connect with elders in a community. For starters, it’s really easy to find volunteer positions in elderly homes (ie: you can ask if you can set up weekly bingo sessions). Furthermore, being respectful to elderly people can also go a long way. If you see an old lady in a super store, you can say hi or initiate a small conversation. These small acts can go a long way towards making someone feel connected.

  14. Appreciate you taking a look at a topic that has been over looked given the struggles of the past year.

  15. Way to go, Reed. The depth and clarity of this presentation is really impressive. A lot of insights here about a topic that I now know I should think (and do) more about.

    1. To add on this! I feel as if this was super interactive, especially with the quiz!!!

  16. Hi Reed.

    Thanks so much for your presentation and the statistics of how over 40% of our senior citizens experience loneliness really surprises me as I would think the elderly would have their family and offspring to help take care of themselves. I truly had no idea that isolation and loneliness were so devastating to our elders. I feel that everyone deserves to have a place they call home and even more so when you’ve lived for so long and sometimes just want to have a warm place to speak with others.

  17. Hi there, thank you so much for calling our attention to the topic of loneliness especially in elderly people. I think it is very important that we address the loneliness through this pandemic, in case there happens to be another one in the future! Great job!

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