Second-Term U.S. Surgeon General Vows to Combat Senior Loneliness and Isolation

Dr. Vivek Murthy, second-term U.S. Surgeon General, is the grandson of a poor farmer in India. He remembers something his grandfather told him when he was younger, that “(w)e are responsible for each other.”

In his travels across the United States and in his important role as surgeon general, Dr. Murthy found “people in pain across America.” “Poverty, discrimination, and violence are negatively impacting people’s health,” Dr. Murthy said. “But so, too, are social isolation and loneliness.”

40 Percent of Americans Are Lonely — Dr. Murthy Wants to Do Something About It

Despite living in the “most technologically connected age in human development,” people in this country are isolated and alone. In fact, an alarming 40 percent of Americans report being lonely! Loneliness is prevalent throughout our country. Using this interactive mapping tool, you can visualize measures of social isolation and loneliness in older adults across the United States.

During his first tenure as U.S. Surgeon General under the Obama administration, Dr. Murthy found people across the country were struggling with social isolation and loneliness. He made addressing these things among his top priorities in his work as surgeon general. In the New York Times, he refers to loneliness as an epidemic, stating, “I think of loneliness as an epidemic because it’s far more widespread than people believe, and like many illnesses that are related to our mental and psychological state, it gets swept under the rug and exists in the shadows. That’s why I speak about this with the urgency that I do.”

Now in his second time serving as surgeon general, Dr. Murthy continues to focus on addressing social isolation and loneliness. Now more than ever, he has found that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the need to address social isolation and loneliness at the national and community levels.

Dr. Murthy is concerned for American citizens, as research reveals that “a lack of social connectedness is as much a risk for premature mortality as obesity and smoking.” In fact, social isolation and loneliness are associated with an increased likelihood of early death, dementia, heart disease, and more. While all ages may experience social isolation and loneliness, older adults are at increased risk because they are more likely to face predisposing factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and sensory impairments.

He believes that “while there is no single solution for these problems, there is a simple first step. We must bring people together to build authentic relationships that are mutually beneficial.”

Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) Are Working to Combat Loneliness and Isolation

The work of AAAs in communities across the country is highlighted as a promising solution for addressing social isolation and loneliness of older adults, people with disabilities, and caregivers. For example, MAC, Inc. developed an application to screen social isolation risk. Maryland AAA provided 700 older adults with tablets that included the screening app. This helped with determining social isolation risk and connecting to social engagement opportunities during the pandemic. To help improve social connectedness, the AAA coupled the app with PEARLS (Program to Encourage Active and Rewarding LiveS), an evidence-based program that helps manage depression and improve quality of life. According to their website, “as PEARLS participants use problem solving techniques, become more socially and physically active, and experience more pleasant activities, their symptoms of depression can be decreased.” This online intervention program is just one of the many examples of the innovative programs and interventions AAAs and other Aging Network organizations are providing to address social isolation and loneliness. Click for loneliness and isolation resources at the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services and AARP resources for DC and nationwide.

Commit to Connect Is Another Helpful Resource

Another helpful screening app is available for free online through Commit to Connect, a public-private partnership developed by the Administration for Community Living and involving a variety of partners, including USAging and engAGED. Commit to Connect is working to organize a national approach to reduce social isolation and loneliness; the app features accessible, affordable, and easy-to-use programs and resources offered by AAAs and other organizations to help people build the social connections they need to thrive. Click here to access these programs.

Fostering Social Engagement During the Holidays

Do you have a friend, loved one, or neighbor who you believe could be experiencing loneliness and isolation this holiday season? The holiday season can bring about feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some older adults, people with disabilities, and caregivers may be gathering in person with family and friends to celebrate this year, many may continue to opt for virtual gatherings.

Identifying and Planning for Engagement Activities

Many people today have no close friends and live far away from their family members. This reality feels very bleak, but loneliness is not inevitable. People can build a meaningful and deep sense of community. There are ways people can learn to connect with others in person and remotely. For example, they can:

Reimagine Community: What does community mean to you? For some, community means joining a book club at the public library. For some, it might mean coaching a youth soccer team. For others, it may mean moving into the same apartment complex with their friends. Think about where you feel connected. How can you pursue those experiences?

Pursue Inner Circle Friends: Making acquaintances is fairly easy, but taking those relationships deeper is challenging. However, people need deep friendship — inner circle friends. These are friends whom you know and trust. Spend time with just them. Everyone needs a safe place to share and be vulnerable. True friends respect each other and are there for one another.

Attend virtual or live cooking and baking classes focused on holiday favorites, secret Santa gift exchanges, holiday beverage virtual gatherings, classes, holiday movie watching, virtual musical, ballet or theater performances, or drive-through or virtual events such as light shows or a tour of holiday decorations in the area.

To make the holiday season brighter, consider other virtual activities to help foster holiday spirit and connection, such as art activities, talent shows, dance parties, ugly sweater contests, or home decorating contests.

Use Your Best Judgement This Holiday Season

If you decide to spend time with a loved one at home or in a nursing home this holiday season, be extra careful and use your best judgement. If you do not feel comfortable due to the new COVID variants, you can still connect with your loved ones using technology such as Facetime or Zoom. This way your loved one won’t feel as lonely and isolated and will know you are there and that you care.

Plan for Loved Ones Who Might Need Long-term Care in the Near Future

If you have a loved one who might need long-term care in the near future, the time to plan is now. Please contact us for an initial consultation to understand your options for helping your loved one get the best care without going broke:

Elder Care Fairfax: 703-691-1888

Elder Care Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435

Estate Care Rockville: 301-519-8041

Elder Care DC: 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.

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