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 .

New Approach to Support Caregivers Needed

Published in Woonsocket Call on September 18, 2016

Currently 18 million people across the nation provide assistance with activities of daily living, transportation, finances, wound care and giving injections to their aging parents, spouses, family and friends. AARP Rhode Island estimates that 148,000 Rhode Islanders are caregivers. The future is bleak for those requiring caregiving assistance in the near future. According to a recently leased report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), the need for family caregivers will drastically increase but demographic shifts reduce the potential pool of caregivers to tap.

Being a Caregiver in America

The 340 page NASEM report (taking 20 months to produce) calls for the retooling of the nation’s health and long-term care delivery system through team based care (using a person and family care model approach) and policy changes to better support family caregivers in the delivery of care to older Americans.

The recommendations detailed in Families Caring for an Aging America, released on September 13, 2016, challenges policy makers “to transform the health care experience for older adults and their family caregivers,” says Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, president of the Washington, D.C.-based The Gerontological (GSA) Society of America, the nation’s largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to the field of aging. “The approach requires a multidimensional, interdisciplinary effort that spans diverse settings of care. GSA strongly supports this effort to create a person- and family-centered model for team-based care that recognizes and rewards the role of the family caregiver,” she notes.

Adds Richard Schulz, who chaired NASEM’s Committee on Family Caregiving for Older Adults (consisting of 19 caregiving experts) that oversaw this study and who serves as Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, “Ignoring family caregivers leaves them unprepared for the tasks they are expected to perform, carrying significant economic and personal burdens.”

Schultz adds, “Caregivers are potentially at increased risk for adverse effects in virtually every aspect of their lives – from their health and quality of life to their relationships and economic security. If the needs of the caregivers are not addressed, we as a society are compromising the well-being of elders. Supporting family caregivers should be an integral part of the nation’s collective responsibility for caring for its older adult population.”

According to a release, NASEM’s highly anticipated report noted that by 2030, 72.8 million U.S. residents – more than 1 in 5 – will age 65 or older. According to the National Survey of Caregivers, in 2011, 17.7 million people – or approximately 7.7 percent of the total U.S. population aged 20 and older – were caregivers of an older adult because of health problems or functional impairments. This estimate does not include caregivers of nursing home residents.

Furthermore, being a caregiver is not a short-term obligation, says the report, noting that the median number of years of family care for older adults with high needs is around five years. The proportion of older adults who are most likely to need intensive support from caregivers – those in their 80s and beyond – is projected to climb from 27 percent in 2012 to 37 percent by 2050.

A Shrinking Pool of Caregivers

The NASEM’s Family Caregiving Committee says that little policy action has been taken to prepare the nation’s health care and social service delivery systems for this demographic shift. While the need for caregiving is rapidly increasing, the number of the potential family caregivers is shrinking. Current demographic trends – including lower fertility, higher rates of childlessness, and increases in divorced and never-married statuses – will decrease the pool of potential caregivers in the near future. Unlike past years, aging baby boomers and seniors will have fewer family members to rely on for their care because they will more likely be unmarried or divorced and living alone, and may be even geographically separated from their children.

The in-depth report found that family caregivers typically provide health and medical care at home, navigate a very complicated and fragmented health care and long-term services and support systems, and serve as surrogate decision makers. Although these individuals play a key role caring for older adults with disabilities and complex health needs, they are oftentimes marginalized or ignored by health care providers. Caregivers may be excluded from treatment decisions and care planning by providers who assume that they will provide a wide range of tasks called for in the older adult’s care plan.

Confirming other research studies, the committee found that caregivers have higher rates of depressive symptoms, anxiety, stress, social isolation, and emotional difficulties. Evidence also suggests that they experience lower physical well-being, elevated levels of stress hormones, higher rates of chronic disease, and impaired preventive health behaviors.

Those taking care of very impaired older adults are at the greatest risk of economic harm, because of the many hours of care and supervision they provide. However, caregiving can provide valuable lessons, helping the caregiver deal with difficult problems and bringing them closer to the recipient of care.

Next Steps

NASEM’s report calls for the next presidential administration to take immediate action to confront the health, economic, and social issues facing family caregivers. Also, the committee urges the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in collaboration with other federal agencies, and private-sector organizations, to develop and implement a National Family Caregiver Strategy that recognizes the essential role family caregivers play in the well-being of older adults.

The report recommends that the nation’s health and long-term care systems must support caregiver’s health, values, and social and economic well-being, as well as address the needs of the of a growing caregiver population that is both culturally and ethnically diverse.

Federal programs (such as Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans Affairs) must also develop, test and implement effective mechanisms to ensure that family caregivers are routinely identified, assessed, and supported. Payment reforms can motivate providers to engage caregivers in the delivery of health care, too.

AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell agrees with the NASEM’s report’s assessment that the importance of a caregiver’s role in an aging society cannot be overstated. At her organization she clearly sees an increased demand for caregivers and knows all-to-well the impact of a shrinking pool of potential caregivers on those in need.

“It is essential that we take action now to do all we can to remove obstacles and additional financial strain and mitigate physical and mental stress where possible for caregivers,” says Connell. AARP has compiled a wealth of research and information on aging issues that can be accessed on http://www.AARP.org.

Final Thoughts…

On Jan. 1, 2016, a new Rhode Island law took effect that would help Rhode Islanders avoid costly and time-consuming red tape when exercising health care, financial and other legal responsibilities for their out-of-state, elderly loved ones.

Why reinvent the wheel? Rhode Island law makers, the state’s Division on Elderly Affairs and the Lt. Governor’s Long-Term Care Coordinating Council can do more to support the state’s growing caregiver population. With the next session of the Rhode Island General Assembly starting in January 2017, state officials and lawmakers can reach out to other states to learn what state-of-the art caregiver programs can be implemented here.

For a copy of the report go to: nationalacademies.org/caregiving