Why fighting social isolation is a worthy cause

Social isolation can be difficult to adequately define and measure, but is generally considered to be a state of having minimal social contact, few or no quality relationships, and the lack of a sense of belonging. It differs from loneliness in that it focuses on a concrete lack of social contact rather than subjective feelings of being alone. Although the two are closely related and are often studied together, social isolation is generally associated with a greater number of negative health issues.

Many seniors face social isolation

A recent review of research by Nicholas Nicholson published in the Journal of Primary Prevention found that between 10 and 43 percent of community-dwelling seniors are socially isolated. He also cited a number of risk factors associated with social isolation in the senior population, including:

  • Living alone
  • Depression
  • The death of close friends, family members or spouse
  • Economic constraints
  • Retirement
  • Unsafe neighborhoods
  • Problems with transportation
  • Distance from relatives

While all of these factors are important, living alone is a particularly key risk factor in social isolation among elders. Notably, 29 percent of Minnesotans aged 65 and older lived alone in 2010 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which suggests that more than a quarter of seniors are at an increased risk for social isolation.

Unfortunately, the issue of social isolation among seniors will likely grow in coming years. As many of you are aware, the number of elderly adults in the U.S. is predicted to steadily increase in the next few decades. At the same time, the ratio of potential caregivers to frail or elderly individuals is expected to decline. A report from AARP Public Policy Institute demonstrates that this ratio, which was at 7 caregivers for every 1 person aged 80+ in 2010, will decline to 3:1 by 2050. This decline in the caregiver ratio suggests decreased support – including social support – for older adults.

Social isolation negatively impacts health

Nicholson’s review, in addition to a recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a study conducted by the Yale University School of Nursing suggest that social isolation and loneliness are associated with an increased risk of many health-related problems, including:

  • Cognitive decline and dementia
  • Death by suicide
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Catching the common cold
  • Falling
  • Arthritis
  • Depression
  • Increases in systolic blood pressure
  • Re-hospitalization and institutionalization
  • Mortality from coronary heart disease and stroke
  • Malnutrition

Additionally, research suggests that social networks can encourage healthy behavior in older adults, such as adherence to medical treatments and restraint from risky behaviors. In contrast, socially isolated seniors are at greater risk for negative health behaviors like smoking, heavy drinking, and physical inactivity, according to Nicholson.

More than a meal

Thankfully, a number of community-based organizations – like Meals on Wheels – play a significant role in addressing social isolation.

In addition to providing a hot, healthy meal to clients, our friendly volunteers offer a daily source of social contact. For some clients, this is the only person they will interact with on a given day, and the connection helps them to live healthfully and independently.

Until recently, we only had anecdotal evidence of the benefits that Meals on Wheels volunteers provide to clients through their interactions. However, a recent study by Meals on Wheels America has quantified the benefits of the social interaction provided by Meals on Wheels and proven that the volunteer delivery component of Meals on Wheels provides “more than a meal.”

With the help of community-based programs like Meals on Wheels, Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly, SilverSneakers and others, seniors can gain the social support they need to remain healthy and living at home.