Being alone can be a terrible thing. Beyond the difficulty of simply living alone, particularly as we get older when our connections to others may diminish, being alone leaves millions of Americans vulnerable to feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) reports that “living alone is a top risk factor and with 29% of people age 65-plus living alone and almost 50% of women age 75-plus living alone, millions of older adults could be affected.”
Melissa Elliott, vice president of programs and services at the Valley-based Area Agency on Aging, Region One, stresses that “it’s important to understand that social isolation is different than merely living alone and loneliness. Living alone can make you socially isolated and lonely, but you may choose to live alone and not be socially isolated.”
According to the n4a, what is clear is that the negative effects of isolation and loneliness are associated with higher rates of chronic health conditions including heart disease, weakened immune system, depression and anxiety, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, admission to nursing homes and use of emergency services.
“When we talk about social isolation, we are speaking about people who are not connected to anyone,” Elliott says. “They are people no one is going to notice if they have a change in their routine, or a deterioration in their health or are struggling with living alone.
“Being socially isolated can be dangerous and unhealthy,” she adds. “There are many studies that show it actually reduces your lifespan and can make you more vulnerable to becoming a victim of elder abuse or other crimes as well as leading to food insecurity, malnutrition and depression, among a variety of other health concerns.”
There is no doubt that America’s population is aging, and rapidly. The Arizona Department of Health Services projects the number of Arizonans age 65 and older will increase 174% between 2010 and 2050 and will represent 21% of the state’s entire population.
Nationally, the United States Census Bureau reports that for the first time in U.S. history, older adults are projected to outnumber children by 2035. By 2060, nearly one in four Americans will be 65 years and older, the number of those 85-plus will triple and the country will add a half million centenarians.
As that process moves forward, the Area Agency on Aging offers both services and programs designed to communicate with, engage with and assist individuals who may be at risk. The agency also conducts outreach and marketing campaigns encouraging older adults to stay connected.
In order to avoid social isolation, the Area Agency encourages older adults to attend one of the many local senior centers they fund or to consider becoming a volunteer. The Agency also offers many health promotion and exercise classes. All of these programs and services can help seniors stay connected to their local community.
Family caregivers of homebound older adults can also feel stressed and isolated. To address that, the Agency funds respite services and support groups. In addition, a six- week class, “Powerful Tools for Caregivers,” teaches caregivers how to reduce stress, improve self- confidence, better communicate their feelings, balance their lives and increase their ability to make tough decisions.
For homebound older adults, the Agency designed Caring Circles, an AmeriCorps program that provides friendly home visits, referrals for services, telephone reassurance and cultivates neighborhood awareness and volunteer support.
Home delivered meals also provide isolated, homebound older adults a way to connect as the meal is usually delivered by the same person each day, serving as a welfare check and an additional social connection.
Among the most important resources is the Area Agency’s 24-Hour Senior HELP LINE (602-264-4357), a year-round information and assistance lifeline to help seniors and their caregivers navigate what can be an overwhelming menu of services and programs. JN
Steve Carr owns the Kur Carr Group, a public relations and communications firm. Visit aaaphx.org for more information.