Report Outlines Strategy for Combating Senior’s Social Isolation and Loneliness

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 1, 2020

Nearly one in four older adults residing in the community are socially isolated. Seniors who are experiencing social isolation or loneliness may face a higher risk of mortality, heart disease and depression, says a newly released report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nongovernmental organization.

For seniors who are homebound, have no family, friends or do not belong to community or faith groups, a medical appointment or home health visit may be one of the few social interactions they have, notes the NASEM report released on Feb. 27, 2020. “Despite the profound health consequences — and the associated costs — the health care system remains an underused partner in preventing, identifying, and intervening for social isolation and loneliness among adults over age 50,” says the report.

“I’m pleased the AARP Foundation sponsored study by NASEM confirms the connection between social isolation or loneliness and death, heart disease and depression for older adults. It also finds that the health care system and community-based organizations have a critical role to play in intervening,” says AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson.

“We also know social isolation, like other social determinants of health, must be addressed to increase economic opportunity and well-being for low-income older adults,” says Ryerson.

Addressing Social Isolation and Loneliness

The 266-page NASEM report, “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System,” undertaken by the Committee on the Health and Medical Dimensions of Social Isolation and loneliness in Older Adults, outlines five goals that the nation’s health care system should adopt to address the health impacts of social isolation and loneliness. It also offers 16 recommendations for strengthening health workforce education and training, leveraging digital health and health technology, improving community partnerships, and funding research in understudied areas.

Although social isolation is defined as an objective lack of social relationships, loneliness is a subjective perception, say the NASEM report’s authors. They note that not all older adults are isolated or lonely, but they are more likely to face predisposing factors such as living alone and the loss of loved ones. The issue may be compounded for LGBT, minority and immigrant older adults, who may already face barriers to care, stigma and discrimination, the report says.

Social isolation and loneliness may also directly result from chronic illness, hearing or vision loss, or having mobility issues. In these instances, health care providers might be able to help prevent or reduce social isolation and loneliness by directly addressing the underlying health-related causes.

“Loneliness and social isolation aren’t just social issues — they can also affect a person’s physical and mental health, and the fabric of communities,” said Dan Blazer, J.P. Gibbons professor of Psychiatry Emeritus and professor of community and family medicine at Duke University, and chair of the committee that wrote the report in a statement announcing the its release. “Addressing social isolation and loneliness is often the entry point for meeting seniors’ other social needs — like food, housing and transportation,” he says.

Providing a Road Map…

The 16 recommendations in this report provides a strategy as to how the health care system can identify seniors at risk of social isolation and loneliness, intervene and engage other community partners.

As to improving Clinical Care Delivery, the report calls for conducting assessments to identify at-risk individuals. Using validated tools, health care providers should perform periodic assessments, particularly after life events that may increase one’s risk (such as a geographic move or the loss of a spouse).
The NASEM report also recommends that social isolation be included in electronic health records (EHRs). If a patient is at risk for or already experiencing social isolation, providers should include assessment data in clear locations in the EHR or medical records.

It’s important to connect patients with social care or community programs, too. The NASEM report notes that several state Medicaid programs and private insurers already has programs that target the social determinants of health. These programs can be more intentionally designed to address social isolation and loneliness of the older recipients. Health care organizations could also partner with ride-sharing programs to enable older adults to travel to medical appointments and community events, the report recommends.

The NASEM report also suggests that as more evidence becomes available, roles that health care providers are already performing — such as discharge planning, case management and transitional care planning — can be modified to directly address social isolation and loneliness in older adults. The report also details other interventions that the health care system might consider may include mindfulness training, cognitive behavioral therapy, and referring patients to peer support groups focused on volunteerism, fitness, or common experiences such as bereavement or widowhood.

Strengthening health professional education and training can be another strategy to combating the negative impacts of social isolation and loneliness. The NASEM report calls for schools of health professions and training programs for direct care workers (home health aides, nurse aides and personal care aides) to incorporate social isolation and loneliness in their curricula. Health professionals need to learn core content in areas such as the health impacts of social isolation and loneliness, assessment strategies, and referral options and processes, say the report’s authors.

The NASEM report warns that there are ethical Implications for using Health Technology to reduce social isolation and loneliness. Technologies that are designed to help seniors — including smart home sensors, robots and handheld devices — might intensify loneliness and increase social isolation if they are not easy to use or attempt to substitute for human contact. Moreover, the report found that 67 percent of the current assisitive technologies in dementia care were designed without considering their ethical implications. Developers of technology should properly assess and test new innovations, taking into account privacy, autonomy and the rural-urban digital divide.

The NASEM report says that more research is need because of evidence gaps and calls for more funding of studies to determine the effectiveness of interventions in clinical settings; to develop measures to identify at-risk individuals; and identify trends among younger adults as they age (such as use of technology and economic trends) that may inform how the health care system should target social isolation and loneliness in the future. More research is also needed to identify approaches and interventions that best meet the needs of LGBT and ethnic minority populations.

The National Academies are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

For a copy of the NASEM report, go to http://www.nap.edu/catalog/25663/social-isolation-and-loneliness-in-older-adults-opportunities-for-the .

Study Calls for Action on Creating Senior Housing for Middle-Income Seniors

Published in the Woonsocket Call on August 18, 2019

A recently released report sends a stark warning to federal and state policy makers and to the private senior housing sector. The report forewarns that in the coming years, a large number of middle-income seniors, who need assisted living with supportive services, will be priced out of this level of care.

Seniors housing in the United States is paid out of pocket by seniors with sufficient assets. A relatively small percentage of Americans have long-term care insurance policies to defray the costs. For seniors with the lowest incomes, Medicaid covers housing only in the skilled nursing setting, but increasingly also covers long-term services and supports in home and community-based settings. Programs such as low-income housing tax credits have helped finance housing for economically-disadvantaged seniors.

The researchers call on the government and the senior housing sector to step up and to assist the projected 14.4 million middle-income people over age 75, many with multiple chronic conditions, who won’t be able to afford pricey senior housing.

According to this first-of-its-kind study that appears in the April 24 2019 edition of Health Affairs, 54 percent of middle-income older Americans will not be able to meet yearly costs of $60,000 for assisted living rent and other out-of-pocket medical costs a decade from now, even if they generated equity by selling their home and committing all of their annual financial resources. The figure skyrockets, to 81 percent, if middle-income seniors in 2019 were to keep the assets they built in their home but commit the reset of their annual financial resources to cover costs associated with seniors housing and care.

Accompanying the senior housing study are two perspective pieces in Health Affairs on how society can adapt to aging and supporting aging in communities.

The study, “The Forgotten Middle: Many Middle-Income Seniors Will Have Insufficient Resources For Housing And Health Care, was conducted by researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago, with funding provided by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC), with additional support from AARP, the AARP Foundation, the John A. Hartford Foundation, and The SCAN Foundation.

Learning About the Needs of the Emerging ‘Middle Market’

“We still have a lot to learn about what the emerging ‘middle market’ wants from housing and personal care, but we know they don’t want to be forced to spend down into poverty, and we know that America cannot currently meet their needs,” said Bob Kramer, NIC’s founder and strategic adviser in a April 24, 2019, statement. “The future requires developing affordable housing and care options for middle-income seniors. This is a wake-up call to policymakers, real estate operators and investors,” he adds.

The report notes that significant financial challenges are expected to coincide with many middle-income seniors seeking seniors housing and care properties due to deteriorating health and other factors, such as whether a family member can serve as a caregiver. The study projects that by 2029, 60 percent of U.S. middle-income seniors over age 75 will have mobility limitations (8.7 million people), 67 percent will have three or more chronic conditions (9.6 million people), and 8 percent will have cognitive impairment (1.2 million people). For middle-income seniors age 85 and older, the prevalence of cognitive impairment nearly doubles.

The researchers say that this ‘middle market’ for seniors housing and care in 2029 will be more racially diverse, have higher educational attainment and income, and smaller families to recruit as unpaid caregivers than today’s seniors. Over the next 10 years, growth in the number of women will outpace men, with women comprising 58 percent of seniors 75 years old or older in 2029, compared to 56 percent in 2014, they say.

Bringing the Public and Private Sector Together

“In only a decade, the number of middle-income seniors will double, and most will not have the savings needed to meet their housing and personal care needs,” said Caroline Pearson, senior vice president at NORC at the University of Chicago and one of the study’s lead authors.

“Policymakers and the seniors housing community have a tremendous opportunity to develop solutions that benefit millions of middle-income people for years to come,” says Pearson.

Researchers say there is an opportunity for policymakers and the seniors housing and care sector to create an entirely new housing and care market for an emerging cohort of middle-income seniors not eligible for Medicaid and not able to pay for housing out of pocket in 2029.

The study’s analysis suggests that creating a new ‘middle market’ for seniors housing and care services will require innovations from the public and private sectors. Researchers say the private sectors can offer more basic housing products, better leverage technology, subsidize ‘middle-market’ residents with higher-paying residents, more robustly engage unpaid caregivers, and develop innovative real estate financing models, among other options.

As to the public sector, the researchers call on government to create incentives to build a robust new market for middle-income seniors by offering tax incentives targeted to the ‘middle market,’ expanding subsidy and voucher programs, expanding Medicare coverage of nonmedical services and supports, creating a Medicare benefit to cover long-term care, and broadening Medicaid’s coverage of home and community-based services.

“This research sets the stage for needed discussions about how the nation will care for seniors who don’t qualify for Medicaid but won’t be able to afford seniors housing,” said Brian Jurutka, NIC’s president and chief executive officer. “This discussion needs to include investors, care providers, policymakers, and developers working together to create a viable middle market for seniors housing and care,” he says.

Adds, Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of AARP’s Foundation, “All seniors want to live in affordable, safe and supportive housing, and more than 19 million older adults are unable to do so. We must act now to implement innovative solutions – including robust aging-in-community efforts – to accommodate what is sure to be an increasing demand for housing that meets the needs of older adults.”

Is Rhode Island prepared to meet the senior housing needs of the state’s middle-income seniors in 2029? If not, the state’s federal delegation, lawmakers, state policy makers and the senior housing industry must begin to chip away at this looming policy issue.

To view the study, go to http://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2018.05233.