Modern life provides us with an increasing number of ways to connect: text, face-time, email, cell phone and even time-tested snail mail give us a range of choices to keep in touch. But despite all these options or perhaps because of them, study after study shows that more and more people feel isolated and lonely in our densely wired twenty-first century society. People 65 and over appear to be especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of loneliness or isolation. In fact, for older adults, these conditions have been associated with a shorter life span, with negative impacts comparable to high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking.
The dimensions of this problem can be difficult to measure, primarily because of the multitude of variables involved. We know that nearly 30 percent of the 46 million older people in the United States live alone, and about half of those 85 years old or older live alone. But living alone does not necessarily equate to loneliness, and people who live among family members can still feel acute social isolation. Additionally, it is difficult to measure if a pre-existing physical condition, such as incontinence, might lead to social isolation, so that a physical problem could be the cause of social isolation, rather than a result of its impact.
Despite these challenges, both common sense and the data that we currently have available tell us that some sort of intervention is desirable. Social isolation of older adults is clearly impacting health costs in the U.S., and causing unnecessary human suffering. Beyond that, it is depriving society as a whole of the involvement of the aging population, and the contributions they can make to our lives.
In fact, we already have a mechanism in place that could help deliver better health to the elderly. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in its “Framework for Patient-Centered Health Risk Assessments”, recommends that during the Health Risk Assessment conducted in the Annual Wellness Visit for Medicare, caregivers incorporate questions specific to loneliness and social isolation. The CDC also recommends that the patient and provider work together to “prioritize interventions to reduce high-risk behavior, or improve self-management of existing disease.” This interaction could incorporate referrals to community resources such as fitness facilities, self-help support groups, or neighborhood volunteer programs. No one is suggesting that this tactic will be a cure-all for loneliness or isolation of older adults, but pilot programs have demonstrated encouraging success.
This month is Older Americans Month, with a theme of “Connect, Create, Contribute.” I’m inspired by this theme to suggest that we work together to promote the connection between health care providers and their Medicare patients through better utilization of the Health Risk Assessment. The benefit of this enhanced low-tech communication could be a great strategy to help reach and improve the health of those who feel isolated and alone even in our high-tech society.
Jim Scott serves as the chair of the Alliance for Aging Research’s Board of Directors. He is also the president and CEO at Applied Policy in Washington, D.C.