Over 10,000 Americans turn 65 years old each day, and 1 in 4 of these seniors live in rural areas and small towns. Along with the many challenges that come with growing older, social isolation is a public health issue, particularly among rural-dwelling seniors.

Social isolation is characterized by objective indicators, such as a lack of relationships or infrequent social contact. It can be experienced by people of any age, but since more people are living alone and longer these days, older individuals—particularly Baby Boomers who tended to have fewer children to help care for them as they aged—seem to be more vulnerable.

The elderly may lose their spouse, their friends, their ability to be mobile, and experience poor health conditions which only exacerbate their loneliness and isolation. These challenges may also decrease their ability to seek new friendships and to participate in activities that could enhance their mental and physical health. Seniors in rural communities face additional challenges, as well. Inadequate access to health care, a lack of community events or activities for the aged, limited transportation and shopping options, and higher rates of poverty all contribute to social isolation in rural areas.

The American Health Rankings Senior Report 2018 found that social isolation is a greater problem in Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, and New Mexico. States with the least amount of senior social isolation include New Hampshire, Utah, Delaware, Minnesota, and Colorado.

According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, social isolation and loneliness are directly correlated to mortality and premature death. A 2018 study found that between the years 1980 and 2014 there was a 29 percent increase in mortality for those suffering from loneliness and a 25 percent increase for those who are socially isolated. Other studies have linked social isolation and loneliness to cognitive decline and high blood pressure which may lead to stroke or coronary heart disease.

Several programs have been developed to try and reduce the risks associated with senior social isolation. The USDA’s Rural Development Housing service provides grants to establish safe affordable multi-family rental housing opportunities for the elderly in rural America. Senior Corps, a United States government agency under the authority of the Corporation for National and Community Service, is a network of national service programs for Americans 55 years who volunteer their time to address critical community needs including elderly care, disaster relief support, tutoring and mentoring, and more. A study performed by AARP in 2015 found that two-thirds of Senior Corp volunteers reported a decrease in social isolation.

CUIDA, a tech company based in La Mesa, California, has created a personal voice Learning Interface for Senior Adults (LISA). CUIDA’s goal is to help seniors stay connected with family, their care team, and their community. LISA works with Amazon’s cloud-based voice service Alexa to aid in medication and nutrition adherence, and it also helps seniors remember their calendars and monitor their wellness status.

The Gateway Centre of Excellence in Rural Health in Ontario, Canada has also introduced a promising program aimed at strengthening and expanding social connections for seniors. The Lonely No More project, which serves more than 200 rural seniors in 4 counties, uses teleconference calls to connect isolated or homebound seniors to their peers. The program also aims to improve opportunities for seniors to access existing programs and services and empowers community members to voluntarily become peer advocates.

Social isolation is a growing epidemic. The number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected to more than double by 2060, and seniors’ share of the total population will rise from 15 percent to nearly 24 percent. In order to insure that seniors continue to live healthy and productive lives, the issue of social isolation needs to be adequately addressed. We have to find ways to help all seniors stay connected and feel like they are important and valued.

 

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Debra Curti
Debra Curti is a Research Associate at the F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.