Study documents the social isolation of older U.S. adults

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: Andy Fisher via Flickr

We know social isolation and loneliness are detrimental to health, particularly among the older adult population. It’s a problem that seems to be getting worse, according to this recent report from Pew Research.

It found that, on average, U.S. adults over age 60 spend more than half of their waking hours alone and for those who live by themselves, that’s as much as 10 hours a day, compared with about half that rate for people in their 40s and 50s.

While time alone isn’t always a bad thing, it can be a proxy for social isolation, according to the report. It’s the social isolation that can lead to adverse health effects such as an increased risk of mortality, depression and cognitive decline. This isn’t a new issue — health experts have been sounding the alarm on the loneliness epidemic for years and ample research supports these concerns. A Google Scholar search of “social isolation and older adults” since 2018 yielded more than 17,000 results.

So why aren’t we paying more attention?

The Pew Study received little attention from the mainstream press — with MarketWatch, the Washington Examiner and Philadelphia Inquirer among the few outlets reporting the story. Granted, the report dropped right before the long July Fourth weekend, but the lack of broader coverage indicates this is a low-priority issue. That’s one reason I was so pleased to find this video report on NBC Left Field by Carlos P. Beltran (no, not the baseball player).

Beltran looks at the issue of loneliness through the lens of 97-year-old Brooklyn resident Marion Faillace. She is homebound but still relatively healthy and cognitively sharp. She and her eldest daughter speak frankly about the struggle of spending so much time alone, and how grateful they are for a program through the Brooklyn public library which regularly sends books and provides an outside connection. Fortunately, Faillace still can read regular-print books and enjoys authors like Agatha Christie and Edgar Allen Poe.

Beltran does a nice job tying the challenges of older adults’ social isolation and loneliness (including expert interviews) with grassroots efforts to address them. Of course, Brooklyn isn’t the only place enacting programs to help mitigate social isolation.

WLRN recently reported on 10 projects targeting isolated older adults in Broward County, Fla, which has the fastest-growing population of age 85-plus in the U.S. In New Jersey, a bill creating a task force to study this problem is winding its way through the state legislature. In Maryland, a campaign by the local area agency on aging and AARP Foundation works to identify these older adults and refer them to support services like a friendly visitor program in Montgomery County.

As the Pew report pointed out, adults age 60-plus currently make up about 22% of the U.S. population; that is expected to increase to 26% by 2030, as the last of the baby boomers and early Gen-Xers age into older adulthood. People are living longer, and they’re often living single — either never married, divorced or widowed, as the Washington Post reported back in 2014. So this is not an issue that will disappear any time soon.

Reporters can do their part to shine a light on this issue by documenting available programs, and by questioning how their community is addressing this growing challenge.

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