The Impact of COVID-19’s Social Isolation on Seniors

Published in RINews Today on November 16, 2020

As COVID-19 cases continued to surge across the nation, AARP Foundation in collaboration with the United Health Foundation (UHF), released a report last month taking a look as to how the COVID-19 pandemic impacts seniors who find themselves socially isolated.  According to the recently released report, “The Pandemic Effect A Social Isolation Report,” two-thirds of adult respondents say they are experiencing social isolation and high levels of anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic.  

The 60-page report, released on Oct. 6, noted that many seniors who are affected have not turned to anyone for assistance, because many find themselves socially isolation, because of lacking reliable and meaningful social support networks.  Previous research studies have found the health risks of being social isolation can be more harmful than being obese, and long-term isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

Social Isolation and Seniors

The study, funded by AARP Foundation with the support of a grant from United Health Foundation, was designed to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adults of all ages, to understand levels of social isolation during the pandemic, and to assess knowledge of how social isolation can impact a person’s health.  The online survey contacted 2,010 U.S. adults age 18 and older, from Aug. 21-25. 

The researchers say that key signs to identify if someone is at risk for social isolation are access to food, healthcare, transportation and other vital resources. But they say that “it’s connections, companionship, and a sense of belonging that we need as humans.”

The AARP Foundation’s report found that for adults 50 and older who have experienced social isolation during the COVID-19 crisis, more than seven in 10 adults agree that this made it more difficult to connect with friends. Half of the respondents also said that they are feeling less motivated, more than four in 10 (41 percent) report feeling more anxious than usual and more than a third (37 percent) have experienced depression. 

The researchers also found that a third of women age 50 and over reported going 1 to 3 months without interacting with people outside of their household or workplace, and adults with low and middle incomes who report experiencing social isolation also say they felt more depressed than adults with higher incomes. Furthermore, only 11 percent of adults regardless of age turned to a medical professional when feeling down or sad, and almost a third reported that they did not look to anyone for support.

Getting Help to Strengthen Social Connections

Commander Scott Kelly, renowned astronaut who spent 340 days isolated in space, has teamed up with AARP Foundation and the UHF to spread the word about the seriousness of social isolation and provide tips on how to successfully emerge from it.  

“Living on the International Space Station for nearly a year with literally no way to leave wasn’t easy, so I took precautions for my mental and physical health seriously,” said Commander Kelly in a statement announcing the release of the report. “I’m advocating for individuals, particularly vulnerable older adults, to use available tools like Connect2Affect.org to strengthen their social connections,” he said.

Getting the Help You Need

Working closely with the UHF to help seniors impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the AARP Foundation recently expanded its website, (Connect2Affect.org) which was originally launched in 2016. The site offers a wealth of resources for socially isolated seniors to strengthen their social bonds.

This website provides help to individuals to assess their risk for social isolation, and to find support services in their local area. The website includes a Social Isolation Risk Assessment, a questionnaire to help individuals determine how connected they are to others and which resources would benefit them most.

Individuals can also tap into Chatbot, a component of the website, designed to provide friendly conversation with the goal of helping rebuild social connections. Chatbot conversations are secure, private and accessible 24/7.

“Social isolation is taking a toll on individuals and communities nationwide, and it’s especially pernicious for those who are 50 or older. This survey shows that older adults who have lower incomes and who are women are at greatest risk,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. “The tools and resources at Connect2Affect.org are designed to help older adults build and maintain the social connections they need to thrive,” she said.

Adds, Dr. Rhonda Randall, executive vice president and a chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare added, “Many people don’t know that social isolation can have lasting effects on not only mental health — but also physical health. We’re focused on finding practical solutions to the lack of connections, companionship and the sense of belonging that we all need as humans.” 

For a copy of “The Pandemic Effect: A Social Isolation Report,” go to https://connect2affect.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/The-Pandemic-Effect-A-Social-Isolation-Report-AARP-Foundation.pdf.

Senators Collins, Casey, Pushing for Reauthorization of Older Americans Act

Published in Woonsocket Call on May 19, 2019

With the Older Americans Act (OAA) scheduled to expire on September 30, 2019, the U.S. Special Senate Committee on Aging puts the spotlight on the importance of this critical law to older American’s, calling for its reauthorization.

Enacted in 1965, the OAA helps more than 11 million seniors age in their communities by funding programs that support grandparents raising grandchildren, reduce social isolation, provide congregate or home-delivered meals and offer respite care among other services.
OAA was last reauthorized in 2016 for a period of three years.

Bipartisan Push in Senate to Reauthorize OAA

While the Senate Aging Committee does not have legislative jurisdiction over OAA, the panel traditionally has put attention on the OAA by holding hearings or special events at the start of any reauthorization process. And the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee – Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Robert Casey (D-Pa.)—have taken an especially keen interest in this year’s OAA reauthorization process. The Senators are leading a bipartisan coalition of Senators pushing for reauthorization, which includes Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wa) as well as Senators Mike Enlzi (R-Wyo.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

In Collin’s opening statement, she pledged to “get across the finish line, on time, a robust and bipartisan Older Americans Act that will strengthen support for its bread and butter programs, while providing more flexibility for states to meet local needs.”

At the Senate Aging hearing, Collins says she plans to focus on five priority areas in the reauthorization of OOA, specifically family caregivers, nutrition, social isolation, transportation and elder justice. “By enriching the lives of seniors, the Older Americans Act improves the lives of all Americans,” says the Maine Senator, kicking off the two hour and 26-minute hearing, aptly titled, “The Older Americans Act: Protecting and Supporting Seniors as they Age.”

“The Older Americans Act is a shining example of a federal policy that works. Every $1 invested into the Older Americans Act generates $3 to help seniors stay at home through low cost, community-based services,” says Collins.

“The Older Americans Act reminds us who we are as a country. It represents our commitment to the generations who made us who we are today. And, it lifts up the seniors who need our help the most, added Casey in his opening statement.

Before the May 18 hearing, Casey noted that he had reached out to 34 Area Agencies on Aging, representing 60 percent of the counties in his home state, for their feedback about OAA’s effectiveness in delivering services to older Pennsylvanians. He asked these two questions: “How is the OAA currently working?” and “How should this important law be strengthened?”

“In every city and every town, the aging network said that there is no match for the high-quality services that senior centers and Area Agencies on Aging provide to older Pennsylvanians. The OAA programs support Pennsylvanians and their caregivers by providing meals, respite and protection from fraud and abuse. And importantly, the OAA also helps seniors age in the location of their choice, which of course is most often their homes and communities.”

Senate Panel Witnesses Give Thumbs-up to OAA

Larry Gross, the chief executive officer of the Southern Maine Agency on Aging shared with the attending Senators his more than four decades of experience serving seniors in both urban and rural areas. He explained how OAA bolsters nutrition programs, supports family caregivers, reduces social isolation and addresses elder justice. He highlighted a partnership with Maine Medical Center showing that home-delivered meals reduce hospital readmissions, and discussed innovations that he has led to improve senior nutrition and build community.

Faith Lewis, a great-grandparent from Simpson, Pennsylvania, shared her personal experience raising her 5-year-old great-granddaughter and the importance of OAA program support that assist grand families like hers. She receives support through the National Family Caregiver Support Program and regularly attends a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren that is hosted by her local Area Agency on Aging.

Lance Robertson, the Administrator & Assistant Secretary for Aging at the administration for Community Living, gave an overview of OAA, including its history, sustainability, and variability across states and communities. He shared background and data on how OAA has helped millions of seniors to age in their local communities. He also discussed his agency’s mission to connect people to resources, protect rights and prevent abuse, expand employment opportunities, support family caregivers and strengthen aging networks.

Finally, Richard Prudom, the Secretary of Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs, Mr. Prudom talked about his work with his state’s 11 Area Agencies on Aging. He offered a state perspective on interfacing both with the administration for Community Living as well as with the Area Agencies on Aging to develop programs that meet the needs of communities. He focused on priorities in supporting family caregivers, advancing senior nutrition, combating elder abuse and addressing disaster preparedness.

AARP Talks About Impact of OAA Programs

Wendy Fox-Grage, Senior Strategic Policy adviser at the Washington, DC-based AARP, in a Feb 19 blog posting, says that despite “woeful inadequacy of current funding, OAA enables 11 million older Americans to live independently. Recent evaluations confirm the positive impact on the Act’s nutrition and family caregiver program, she says.

As to evaluating the impact of OAA’s nutrition programs, Grage says that forty-two percent of congregate meal participants and 61 percent of home delivered meal participants would skip meals or eat less in the absence of these programs. Congregate meal participants are also less likely to be admitted to nursing homes, and congregate meal participants who live alone are less likely to be admitted to hospital than nonparticipant, she says.

As to caregiving, Grage noted that family caregivers received four hours or more of respite care per week reported a decline in burden over time and those who received at least one education/training, counseling, or support group session experienced an increase in self-reported confidence over time.

AARP joins Senators Collins and Casey’s call on Congress to reauthorize the Older Americans Act before the end of September. OAA’s 11 million beneficiaries, 700,000 caregivers, and providers in the nation’s aging network — consisting of the federal Administration on Aging, State Units on Aging, local Area Agencies on Aging, and local service providers – also wait for Congress to make its move and reauthorize the Act.