Social isolation is a growing and often unseen epidemic, particularly among older adults and one-third of Americans over 65 who live alone. Because its indicators can go unnoticed, its symptoms exacerbate when left unaddressed.
This year’s National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (N4A) conference tackled this topic as one of its themes on preventing and combating social isolation among older adults. The National Survey of Area Agencies on Aging’s 2017 report found that 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day and projects that by 2030, one in five (20%) of the US population will be 65 or older. With more people aging, the need for programs to meet their growing, diverse, and ever-changing needs is imperative.
In a 2011 report in the Oxford Academic, 24% (approx. 7.7 million) of survey self-responding older adults over 65 years old were characterized as socially isolated, including 1.3 million (4%) who were described as severely socially isolated. Research has linked social isolation to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.
One important distinction to make is the difference between loneliness and social isolation. While loneliness is a varying and often a temporary state, The National Institute on Aging (NIA) describes social isolation as a state affecting “people who find themselves unexpectedly alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility, and lack of transportation.” To counterbalance this, studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between engaged physical activity and cognitive function and health.
Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) are uniquely positioned to combat social isolation among older adults best through their programs and deep knowledge over their needs in communities at a local level. AAAs are a national network of county-level agencies that provide much-needed services to help older adults live independent and healthy lives. AAAs receive state funding from federal funds through the Older Americans Act (OAA) federal program.
Last month, SmartSimple had the honor of exhibiting at the N4A annual conference for the first time, which brought together nearly 1,200 professionals from AAAs across America to learn, share, and collaborate. This year its host city was New Orleans – both a beautiful city of rich history and celebration. It was a fitting place to celebrate the great work AAA professionals are doing to improve the lives and dignity of older adults. During the 5-day conference, N4A highlighted work through their Aging and Innovations Awards where they celebrated successful initiatives from 48 different AAAs that others can draw inspiration from.
One of the inspiring stories includes the work of Loudoun County Area Agency on Aging’s Senior Summer Adventure Camp. This program offers an exciting four-day nature and adventure camp for older adults that combines learning, fitness, and socialization. In 2018, participant satisfaction surveys reported a 95% satisfaction rate and 67% requesting more camps the following year.
SmartSimple client, AgeOptions (AAA of suburban Cook County, Illinois), led a presentation on their efforts in combating social isolation through a series of innovative programs they created. AgeOption’s President and CEO, Diane Slezak, highlighted their programs that include memory cafés to develop a welcoming social gathering for people living with dementia and their care partners. They shared their results and findings.
SmartSimple has been working with AgeOptions along with other AAA’s at modernizing how they fulfill and report Title III services in suburban Cook County and become more efficient in their program funding processes. We’ve developed SPEngage, a service provider management solution to help AAAs gain the efficiency they need to address the needs of older adults in their communities. From budgeting, funding approvals, and program reporting to better managing relationships with every service provider, SPEngage is a comprehensive solution to help AAAs get back more time to support even more older adults in their counties.
What can you do to combat social isolation? Here are some ways.
In cooperation between N4A and the AARP Foundation, they’ve created a day called Connect2Affect happening on September 28th. You can join in and participate in this important day that works to prevent and mitigate social isolation.
Check-in and connect with older adults in your community. Minnesota Metropolitan AAA’s recent Expanding Your Circles report comes with a toolkit for addressing social isolation along with a useful checklist. You can self-diagnose yourself or anyone you know who may have signs of social isolation.