Loneliness in the Age of Connectedness

The Gerontological Society of America just published a report on the lack of social connectedness and its consequences (Public Policy & Aging Report, Volume 27, Issue 4, 13 January 2018, Pages 121–123).  This comprehensive report looks at an issue that is present in every culture but is rarely addressed by policy.  How can we, as a society, establish norms for dealing with an existential state of being?

From a policy perspective, loneliness is a public health issue.  According to the AARP Foundation, costs associated with loneliness include higher blood pressure (stroke), decreased immunologic response to infections and flu, greater risk of heart disease, and earlier onset of dementia.

Treating the isolated older adult is challenging. Outcomes frequently reflect the gaps in service.  Older patients often evidence poor adherence to treatment because they cannot fill prescriptions, make it to appointments, or understand the mass of paperwork required to protect their privacy. Services are limited due to lack of community health providers who make home visits and skilled nursing beds for rehabilitation.  Wait times in the Emergency room at local hospitals continue to be problematic, since the ER serves many who are unable to access health care elsewhere.

While it is very useful to look at loneliness from the perspective of public policy, it does not address the issue at its most human level.  The intersection of scientific, social and spiritual connectedness is an essential one to understand.   There is the psychological experience of separateness that contributes to and may be at the root of anxiety.  There is the social experience of disconnection from family and community arising from technology and lack of opportunity to engage in social activities, and there is the spiritual experience of “I and Thou” and facing mortality.

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From the vantage point of a philosopher, there is no end of writings that address this.  Poets, too, explore what is means to be alone.  What the report brings into focus is that there is an increasing social cost to not just the individual, but to our communities and the different groups of people that must learn to connect in order to survive!

It is not news that older Americans as a group are becoming increasingly isolated.  For many years studies have identified infrastructure issues (e.g., lack of transportation), economics (threats to social safety net programs such as Social Security, SNAP and Medicare), ageism, and technology as contributors to this phenomenon.  Each of these has different costs and implications, but all contribute to a diminished sense of community and a profound loss of connection.

Infrastructure issues affect all Americans, but especially those who are dependent on public transportation.  If you are unable to get to the grocery store, the pharmacy, medical offices, and places of worship, your quality of life diminishes.  This is particularly true for rural communities, where services are geographically spread out and public transportation infrequent and limited.

The economics of aging is especially challenging here in the United States, because unlike other countries, the two most expensive costs associated with aging (health care and housing) are unregulated and currently under siege by the Federal government.  In many instances, they are only partially addressed by local government or charity and suffer the vagaries of fund raising and allocation of competing resources.

Older adults become “invisible” in our culture as they age.  Many live in self-segregated communities that contribute to diminishing opportunities for meaningful interactions with younger people.  For some on the higher end of the economic spectrum, this looks like a retirement community.  For those on the poverty end, this looks like Section 8 housing in transitioning neighborhoods affected by racism and economic decline.

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Media has a profound impact on perception of what it means to be old and continues to reinforce aversion to the aging process.  Older adults are often portrayed as stupid or slow, having little familiarity with technology, and needing assistance to complete the most basic of tasks.  Only occasionally are they shown as wisdom-givers, or respected elders who are consulted when difficulties arise.

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Ironically, technology holds the greatest promise in “re-connecting” isolated older adults.  It is not without its challenges, however.  For example, barriers such as the cost and availability of WiFi, privacy, endless upgrades of software, interoperability, and for some, a learning curve in using smartphones, laptops, or whatever the next generation device is must be overcome.

Recommendations for change are found at many different levels.  Essential research is being done by academic institutions and Think Tanks. AARP is but one organization that is publishing findings.  What remains is finding the will to fund pilot programs and put into practice solutions that will make a difference.  This needs to be done at the community level, with leadership from elders within each community.  We need to step up to the plate and take the reins.

Some of us are living in communities that are proactively addressing and meeting the needs of the aging adults who live there.  Others of us, as the AARP report highlights, are cut off from the essential element that preserves our humanity – connection with others.

The Center for Aging & Values has a 10 point matrix outlining what we believe it takes to create an “Elder-Friendly Community”.  The key elements are housing, health care, nutrition, transportation, employment, recreation, spiritual needs, creative expression, opportunities for life-long learning, and intergenerational sharing.

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We believe that communities that are elder friendly benefit from the wisdom and experience that older adults provide.  Creating opportunities for exchange of information, sharing of mutual interests, collaborating and problem-solving are antidotes to loneliness and feelings of disconnection.  How this is accomplished is often a disorganized and reactive experiment rather than a planned activity.  The Center for Aging & Values wants to change that.

We invite you to review our matrix and contact us for information and support in creating a plan for making your community more “Elder Friendly”.  We are happy to come speak and facilitate conversations with you and with groups in your community to introduce this concept if it is unfamiliar.   We are also delighted to assist in collecting information and developing and implementing specific strategies to address gaps in your community.

Contact us at:

  • Center for Aging & Values
  • PO Box 134
  • El Verano, CA  95433
  • (707) 543-1330
  • mflettCAV@gmail.com

Thanks for reading!

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