This Can Be as Damaging to Your Health as 15 Cigarettes Per Day

Erica and her husband, Russ, go to the local diner sometimes for breakfast. The past couple of times they were there, they noticed a senior man sitting alone. The man proudly wore a WWII veteran hat.

One morning, Russ, who is a history-buff, struck up a conversation with the veteran. He and Erica introduced themselves and thanked him for his service. The man smiled and invited them to join him for coffee. After a long and engaging conversation, Erica and Russ realized that the veteran lived alone and had no family, and not many friends, and that he was lonely. Erica and Russ were saddened about the friendly veteran’s loneliness. They wrote their phone numbers on a piece of paper and urged the man to call them for anything he may need. Two weeks went by and he called to ask for a ride to the doctor. Since then, he has become a close family friend, attending Erica and Russ’s son’s ball games, and joining them for movies and meals. He has brought so much joy into Erica and Russ’ family’s lives and their children have learned so much from their new octogenarian, WWII hero friend.

Many older Americans, similar to the veteran in our example, are living alone, lacking contact, and suffering from social isolation. Others may be married but have left the workforce, have close, long-time friends who have moved or gotten sick, act as a family caregiver or they or a spouse have mobility or cognitive issues. Loneliness is serious. In fact, research studies reveal that lacking social connections can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day! The following happens to older adults when they are lonely:

· They feel less healthy.  In a recent report from AARP, 19% of people ages 62-92 are lonely and rate their health as worse than the non-lonely group, but effects go well beyond self-perception. The lonely group, according to the study, was more likely to be impaired in their ability to conduct activities of daily living, including dressing, bathing, feeding, or toileting.

· Loneliness can be a predictor of cognitive decline.  Loneliness, rather than living alone, may be linked to a 64% greater risk for dementia. In a University of Chicago analysis by Louise Hawkley & John Cocioppo to consider the effects of loneliness and social isolation, the author concluded: “Feelings of loneliness at age 79 predicted ‘lifetime cognitive change.” Other studies have also indicated that loneliness is a precursor of cognitive decline.

· Loneliness can shorten a lifespan. In a University of Chicago study, researchers conducted a study that concluded “for older adults, perceived social isolation is a major health risk that can increase the risk of premature death by 14%.” In Florida, 20% of the state’s population is age 65+, which is the highest percentage in the US.  In 2015, there were 3,152 suicides, with 44% (1,401) of them aged 55+, including 425 individuals who were aged 75+

How You Can Help a Loved One or a Community Member

While loneliness is on the rise, it does not have to be permanent. Here are some strategies loved ones can use to reduce the experience and impact of loneliness:

· Help older adults make plans to be with other people. The concept seems simple, but in reality, it is difficult to engage those who need engagement most. To help a lonely senior, identify support programs, senior communities, and/or church-related offerings, and see if any of them offer opportunities to meet other people.

· Rethink housing. New approaches for boomers and seniors are blossoming throughout the US. These include shared housing with housemates, co-housing with occasional communal meals, and informal daily interaction. Initiatives are emerging that encourage aging in place while being part of a neighborhood Village. Services are also offered within a naturally occurring retirement community (NORC). There are also communities where boomers and elders move to support a social mission or benefit from the presence of a college or university.   

· Locate and encourage intergenerational activities. Seniors should be encouraged to participate in intergenerational activities to boost sense of purpose and knowledge sharing.  These programs can be formalized (like reverse mentoring 4H programs) or informal.

· Encourage interaction with pets – their own or others.  The data is compelling — older adults have fewer health issues when they have regular interaction with pets. Even robotic pets, such as Hasbro’s Joy For All line of cats and dogs can soothe an older adult who is anxious and/or lonely.

· Find social media and online classes. Many communities offer lifelong learning programs that can help seniors gain online access or make better use of technology. Programs such as SeniorNet, regional AARP TEK programs, Osher Lifelong Learning at George Mason University, and others can help seniors boost tech confidence. Once gained, they can enjoy use of tools like Facetime, Skype, email, and photo sharing to keep social connections strong and nurture new connections.

Initiatives to Mitigate the Risks of Loneliness and Social Isolation

Being both socially isolated and lonely are problems that are rising to the top of age-related health issues, and concern is growing about the public health implications of this trend. At the April 2017 Senate hearing titled, “Aging without Community,” the physical outcomes of loneliness and social isolation were compared to smoking, obesity and cancer. At that hearing Senator Susan Collins said: “Just as we did when we made a national commitment to cut smoking rates in this country, we should explore approaches to reducing isolation and loneliness. Each has a real impact on the health and well-being of our seniors.” As the statistics multiply and the concern grows, leaders in the public and private sectors have launched initiatives to combat loneliness and isolation. They include:

· Campaign in the community.  AARP Foundation and the Area Agencies on Aging recently launched a campaign to help combat social isolation. The ongoing Connect2Affect initiatives and series of resources, reports, and activities were a direct outcome of that campaign.  These include research about social isolation, stories (and videos) and various ways to become involved.

· CareMore Campaign.  Anthem Insurance has launched a campaign to fight the health issues resulting from loneliness, calling it “Be in the Circle: Be Connected.” To lead the way, the insurer appointed a “Chief Togetherness Officer” to rally and train the staff on the program and outcome measurements.

· Communication. Organizations such as the National Council on Aging (Benefits Call Center Training) and technology organizations such as GreatCall provide specific training programs to tailor service response to older adult callers.

· Social media utilization. Being part of an online community can help older adults feel more connected to family members they may not see regularly – enabling them to be better in touch and feel connected. One small study indicated that access to Skype and Facebook could result in improved health for the surveyed older adults.

Visit Your Loved Ones, Friends, or Neighbors

When you visit someone who doesn’t get regular visitors (even when he or she has Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia) you may have impacted that person in a major way, especially if he or she is lonely and/or feeling isolated or depressed. The feelings you create by showing you care can change how he or she interacts with others and improve his or her mood. Remember, the benefit of your visit (or a call, if you cannot visit) will likely last, so call and visit senior loved ones whenever you can.

If you have a senior loved one who lives alone, or even for yourself, it is always prudent to plan ahead in the event that assisted living or nursing home care is needed in the future.. Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection is the process of protecting your assets from having to be spent down in connection with entry into a nursing home, while also helping ensure that you or your loved one get the best possible care and maintain the highest possible quality of life, whether at home, in an assisted living facility, or in a nursing home. As always, please contact us when you’re ready to make an appointment for a no-cost introductory consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888

Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435

Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041

DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.