Submission

Team

Social Isolation and Loneliness in the Seniors in Our Community
Title

Social Isolation and Loneliness in the Seniors in Our Community

Summary

Unfortunately, our elders are more socially isolated and lonely than ever. With being lonely and socially isolated, seniors are much more likely to have serious health issues due to their state of mind. Some elders can go a full week without speaking to anyone! Loneliness can affect how elders may feel, their overall health, and how they see themselves. It can make them feel insignificant or even forgotten. We want to change that, or at least make an impact, create a spark, or inspire others to create a better place in our communities for our seniors. Strong social connections are central to our physical and mental well-being and when vulnerable older adults experience setbacks or life transitions, they are at risk of becoming disconnected and isolated. Senior loneliness is an often-overlooked problem within every community in America. Some studies estimate that at least 1 in 3 senior citizens are lonely at least some of the time. This problem does more than just affect their mental and emotional well-being, it takes its toll on their physical health as well. Seniors who suffer from loneliness have a 59% increased risk of physical and mental health decline. Research has linked loneliness to a higher incidence of health conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, obesity, immunosuppression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, depression, anxiety, and even all-cause mortality in senior citizens.

Team Information
Smiles for Our Seniors
Category
Mental Health

About the Problem

Problem Category

Mental Health

How did you identify this problem?

We were always aware of this problem but seeing it firsthand made it that much more real. Matthew is completing his residency and has provided care for geriatric patients daily throughout the entirety of his medical education and training. Nichole has recently begun doing clinical rotations in a nursing assistant program where she has ongoing contact with residents in assisted living facilities who often describe how lonely they feel daily, and how this negatively impacts their lives. Both of us have members of our family who are of advanced age as well and have seen firsthand the health implications of elders who are feeling socially isolated and lonely.

Problem Details

Who are those affected by this problem?

We all inevitably will age (if we are lucky enough to), and as we do, we all are at risk of having this problem affect us directly in the future. With advancements in medical technology the US population has and will continue to age with some estimates projecting a doubling of the number of Americans greater than 65 years old in the next 40 years. In addition to this, family dynamics have begun to change. Birth rates are going down and divorce rates are high. Meaning intergenerational caregiving will likely decrease. A 2020 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found some disturbing health risks associated with loneliness in the elderly. The study showed higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide being associated with loneliness. This study also revealed that loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits. Other notable findings showed that social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes and that isolation was associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia. Social isolation and loneliness in older adults have also been linked with a greater likelihood of unhealthy behaviors, such as inactivity and smoking.

How often does this problem occur?

This is an ongoing problem that plagues not only our community but nearly every community in America. The rate at which this has become apparent has accelerated in the setting of a global pandemic.

How long has the problem been going on?

It has been going on for decades, however, it is worse now especially with technology being so rampant. This is because seniors are much less likely to use social media or any form of social technological interaction, or at least as well as those who are younger. So while the younger people in the community can at least use their phones or computers to stay in contact with people, our elders are not afforded that luxury.

Is the problem disrupting the community? How?

It may not be obvious how this is disrupting our community, but the effects of this problem are widespread and touch every one of us in one way or another. People often overlook mental health in general and unfortunately, it has become all too easy to take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach when it comes to our senior citizens. What many people are unaware of are the very real and clinically significant health implications of this problem on our loved ones within the community.

Is the issue perceived as a problem by the community at large?

Unfortunately, we do not believe this is seen as a significant problem in our community at this time. But this program aims to bring awareness to this issue with the goal of significantly reducing the prevalence of senior loneliness and isolation and the health implications that are associated with it.

Is the problem limited to certain geographic areas?

This problem is ubiquitous within the United States, and it particularly impacts those of lower socioeconomic status.

Who are the Stakeholders, those wanting this problem to be fixed?

We should all want better for our senior citizens and as previously mentioned, even if a particular individual does not have an elderly loved one in their lives at the moment, they may one day benefit from initiatives to address this issue in the future.

Addressing the Problem

Are you aware of any solutions, approaches, or efforts to tackle this problem?

There are many possible interventions that would help address this problem within our community and we have taken inspiration from other programs across the country with a similar goal. We have preliminary ideas on ways to make a change for the better that include volunteering to spend time in person with senior citizens, engage in phone calls, or even letter services that would help put a smile on the face of a stranger who needs one. We hope to inspire hope and maintain the dignity of our aging population. Other ideas we have been developing include “pet therapy” where cats and dogs from the community are brought by their owners (or even local shelters) to spend the day with a senior citizen. Transportation initiatives to help reintegrate senior citizens into the community and take them to medical and other appointments they may have, and technology workshops aimed at helping senior citizens utilize technology to stay in touch with their loved ones who may not be able to visit in person.

What are the obstacles you are aware of to address the problem?

There may be some issues finding volunteers who can donate their time but I believe in the strength of our community and this should be an obstacle that is easily overcome if we are able to adequately promote our program as we intend to.

What are the success criteria that could be defined to address this problem?

Even one smile would make our work worth it and ideally, we would measure our impact directly with the number of lives we are able to impact and the days we are able to brighten. More subjective measures would be the implementation of surveys administered to participants within the program to gauge how they feel about the services we will one day provide. This would also allow us to create new initiatives within the program that will address needs we may have overlooked.