Mental Health while Aging – New News, Old News and Good News

What’s New News?

The New News is the convergence of prolific data through research studies that says social isolation and loneliness is bad for your heart. Social isolation, especially among seniors, can be used to predict cardiovascular health outcomes. Overall, lack of social support and connectedness was found to be the strongest and most consistent predictor of cardiovascular disease outcomes. (Keeping the Heart Beating: Social Isolation and Cardiovascular Health, June 2, 2017, Karina Alibhai, The Samuel Centre or Social Connectedness).

This is a smartly curated, cross-disciplinary panel exploring loneliness as an emerging risk factor that has huge implications for medical, personal, economic and societal well-being.

Here are a few heart pumping facts that now, definitively, connected the dots, conclusively and again, of the palpable connection between social isolation and our health.

  • Social isolation is worse that obesity and 15 cigarettes a day and is widely publicized as a public health concern.
  • Social isolation has been quantified by Medicare! Spending related to the negative health effects of social isolation is now costing is 6.7 billion dollars, annually.
  • Social isolation is more lethal even than cancer. Living a lonely life doubles the chances of a premature death.
  • Lack of companionship, feeling left out, or isolated from others is experienced by almost 1 in 5 individuals aged 65.

For years (ever since I was a teenager) the argument has been made that cigarettes are bad for your health. Today, these facts are embedded in our awareness of how to live a healthy life:

  • Smoking causes stroke and coronary heart disease, which are among the leading causes of death in the United States.
  • Even people who smoke fewer than five cigarettes a day can have early signs of cardiovascular disease.
  • Smoking damages blood vessels and can make them thicken and grow narrower. This makes your heart beat faster and your blood pressure go up.
  • Smoking causes most cases of lung cancer.

Under great pressure from friends and family I quit. This was something I could do that was a specific action, based upon hard evidence, that addressed an observable enemy. There was a clear and direct path to improving my personal health.

How do we create the same public awareness campaign around social isolation when it is not a substance, drug or necessarily visible in the same way that cigarettes are?

What’s Old News?

The Old News is that loneliness and isolation breaks the spirit.

I recently re-read an old favorite of mine, Anita Diamont’s “Pitching My Tent”, and her musings on human conditions. She says of friendship that: “To make friends, you need to mosey, to digress. You need a minimum of 24 hours to tell someone where you are coming from, what TV shows you like or how you would spend a million dollars. To make a friend, you need to get the full story about family lore and old loves…”.

In this lovely little book, I was reminded that, in establishing friendships, we are tending to the age old desires of our heart in having meaningful connections and a sense of belonging. Satisfying this need, that is as old as time, is good and healthy for the heart and the soul.

What’s the Good News?

The Good News is that the social isolation epidemic has grabbed the attention of many stakeholders in the aging space including service providers, educators, healthcare providers, housing planners and many other doing their business in the aging sector.

Here is a glimpse of innovative and creative new and good things that are happening in communities throughout the nation.

Healthcare delivery systems like CareMore Health and Tivity Health (well known for SilverSneakers®) are seeking new ways to expand their focus to include the social wellness needs of their older adult customers. Healthcare systems are recognizing that they have a role to play in looking at social health is a specific healthcare need and living healthier, happier, longer—together means they must create more options for their customers!

Friendly Visitor is a program in Montgomery County, Maryland, which recruits and trains volunteers who visit lonely, isolated and homebound seniors for at least one hour per week.

The Motion Picture Television Fund and ONEgeneration are committed to serving older adults throughout the Los Angeles area and are a part of the coalition, have implemented a daily call list consisting of homebound, older adults who have been assessed and identified as being socially isolated (“Daily Call Sheet” or “Careline Calls” programs). These individuals get a daily phone call from volunteer seniors who simply call on a regular basis to say hello and build a Friendship.

The use of intergenerational programming to help address social isolation and loneliness in an affordable housing opportunities. Colleges such as NYU and Washington University have launched an innovative, intergenerational approach to targeting socially isolated seniors with affordable housing opportunities for college students. This program, called “Intergenerational Solutions in Housing,” pairs graduate students with older adults who have an extra room in their home.

Homebound older adults struggle leaving their homes to pick up their medications and the thought of attending a local social event at their senior center can seem like an impossible task. In an effort to reach those homebound socially isolated older adults, “Senior Center without Walls” was created to offer regular activities, opportunities for conversations with other older adults, and support groups all performed over the phone to create a sense of connectivity for those confined to their homes.

All I can say is, it truly takes a village!

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