Virtual summit participants hope to spur action in response to social isolation among older Americans

Older Americans have long been more prone to social isolation, and with stay at home orders closing senior centers and making it dangerous for older adults to leave the house even for groceries, feelings of profound loneliness are even more common for this demographic — feelings that can be more damaging for a person’s health than smoking.

Meals on Wheels America partnered with the Caesars Foundation to host the National Social Isolation Summit late last month, addressing not only the new issues that seniors are facing as a result of COVID-19 but also the impacts of isolation that many seniors faced prior to the pandemic.

“It’s important to recognize that social isolation and loneliness isn’t just about feeling miserable,” Dr. Julianne Holt-Lundstad, a professor at Brigham Young University, said during her keynote speech at the event. “Social isolation and loneliness can be deadly.”

The summit was initially scheduled as an in-person event in Las Vegas in May. Though the spread of COVID-19 has added complications to the issues being addressed, the goal of the summit remained largely unchanged.

“When we first set out, the goals were really the same as what we’re doing with the virtual summit,” Carter Florence, the senior director of strategy and impact for Meals on Wheels America, said. “Which is really to highlight the power of human connection, especially for older adults who are homebound or unable to leave their house.”

According to a 2018 study by AARP, one in three older adults is lonely. Studies by Dr. Carla Perissinotto have shown that loneliness and social isolation increase all causes of mortality. Perissinotto also reported in testimony to the Senate Special Committee on Aging that loneliness leads to a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia.

It also has been shown that loneliness is as bad for health as smoking and obesity.

Holt-Lundstad cited a survey showing that 20 to 30 percent of adults reported feeling lonelier now than they did prior to COVID-19.  In addition to increased loneliness, COVID has made it more difficult for older Americans to access resources which provide social connection.

Senior centers have been forced to shut their doors, and programs that offered in-person counseling and connection have had to pivot to internet-based programming. This can be problematic for older Americans, who often are victims of the digital divide.

Some don’t have access to the necessary broadband connection and many others have poor eyesight or other physical restrictions which can make technology more difficult to utilize.

“Technology isn’t necessarily designed for older adults,” Florence said. “Like the touchscreen on your iPad, that’s all based on oil contact and older adults don’t produce as much oil in their skin … Just like we consider technologies for younger kids, it’s the same. We modify and adapt those based on the abilities … and so that has to be considered for older adults as well.”

There are some programs aimed at helping older Americans adapt to the use of technology, including a webinar hosted by The Administration for Community Living on programs and best practices to assist older Americans and Americans with disabilities in using technology.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living has created a challenge offering $750,000 to organizations who can create easy-to-use social engagement programs for the socially isolated.

Other organizations have chosen to avoid newer technologies, such as video calling or virtual chat rooms, and instead stick to telephone-based programming. Telephones were found to be the primary means of communication for older adults in a survey done by Holt-Lundstad. 

Organizations such as the Motion Picture Television Fund which run “The Daily Call Sheet,” a program where younger industry professionals engage with older professionals considered at risk of loneliness, focus on telephone-based programs. Meals on Wheels themselves which have also pivoted from in-person visits to “cell phone reassurance.” 

According to Edwin Walker, the deputy assistant secretary for the Administration on Aging, while his division was able to shift programs to initially respond to the new demands of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown, the long-term consequences will create issues that require more innovation.

“In the early days of this pandemic, we saw that our program shifted or pivoted to respond to the stay at home orders,” Walker said. “We touted how our programs adapted quickly and became quite innovative in continuing to support our population, but I don't believe any of us were prepared for the long-term nature and consequences of this pandemic.”

Because of long-lasting effects that may not be solved simply with a new program or new technology, experts emphasize the need to focus on social isolation as a primary issue that poses a danger to physical and mental health.

“Why, when we know that the public health impacts are equivalent with smoking, on par with obesity, does this always continue to be relegated as some secondary touchy-feely issue?” Scott Kaiser, the chief innovation officer of the Motion Picture and Television Fund said. “Let's elevate it to the primary point that it should be.”

While speaking at the summit, Kaiser focused heavily on the idea of “co-occurrence” between social isolation and loneliness and other demographic situations and physical and mental health issues and the importance of acknowledging that co-occurrence.

The 2018 AARP study also found that things such as income level, sexual orientation, and “caregiver” status can increase the likelihood that an older adult is lonely. In order to properly address the needs of these demographics, Kaiser believes that acknowledging their co-occurrence with loneliness is vital.