Baby Boomers are currently undergoing a mass transition into retirement. According to estimates from the Pew Research Group, approximately 10,000 seniors will reach retirement age every day until 2030. As they age, many of these retirees will face common, but costly, age-related medical concerns such as heart disease, diabetes, and loneliness. The last stands out as a factor not typically associated with health or wellness — and yet, untreated social isolation could shorten a senior’s lifespan just as effectively as congestive heart failure or diabetes.
This said, isolation is all too common for seniors today. Baby Boomers are more likely to age alone than previous generations; currently, one in 11 Americans over the age of 50 lives without a partner or adult child. In a recent survey for the Wall Street Journal, 8.3% of Boomers reported that they “often feel lonely” during their day-to-day lives.
The trend towards loneliness is understandable. Baby Boomers have higher rates of divorce and prefer to remain unmarried more than their predecessors, leaving them more likely to lack children or a partner in their later years. Adults who retire also lose access to at-work friendships and need to rely on adult children or aging family members for support. This solution, however, falls short when those family members are geologically distant or absent. One study conducted by Harvard University, Stanford University, and the AARP in 2017 indicated that the shortage of social contacts among older adults today may contribute as much as $6.7 billion to Medicare spending every year as isolated seniors turn to skilled nursing facilities and hospitals for the at-home care a family member or friend might otherwise provide.
The emotional and physical impact of loneliness, however, extends far beyond poor care coordination. Over the past decade, public health researchers have established the profoundly negative impact loneliness can have on a senior’s health and lifespan. In 2012, the University of Chicago’s Center on Aging tracked isolation and senior mortality risk over a six-year-period and reported that “loneliness both affected and was affected by depressive symptoms and functional limitations over time.”
The long-term impact of this isolation-prompted depression can be severe; another study from Brigham Young University performed a meta-analytical review on data from 148 studies on loneliness and concluded that seniors with fewer social relationships were 50% more likely to die early than those with a healthy network. The researchers asserted that not only were these findings were consistent across ages, sexes, and health statuses, but also stood on par with established risk factors such as smoking, alcohol use, and obesity.
Today, we have clear answers for seniors who struggle with heart conditions and diabetes — but when it comes to treating loneliness, the prescription isn’t as clear. Living alone is not a safe or long-term solution for seniors, especially if they lack robust support systems. Their quality and longevity of life hinge on having supportive social environments that can attend to their medical and social concerns with equal care. Fortunately, there are a few ways that older adults can bolster their support systems and mitigate loneliness-induced health risks.
Assisted Living Communities
Assisted living communities (ALCs) are residential communities intended for active seniors who need little to no everyday medical care. They are not institutional homes for the medically sick; in fact, many often resemble high-class hotels or condos. ALCs’ main appeal lies in their ability to provide community for a base of active older adults. When a senior lives at home, they have relatively few opportunities to engage with others in their age range. At an ALC, social interaction with a peer is only ever a short walk away.
Case Study: Grace Senior Living
Every residence under Grace Senior Living’s purview is designed to provide seniors with a community-centered living experience. Each ALC location offers residents social programming that encourages them to both engage with their neighbors and maintain active, healthy lives. If a resident feels as though they need the support of a counselor or the help of a homecare aide, the company has relevant professionals on staff. Grace’s main drive is to help seniors live their sunset years in a supportive community and ensure that they don’t face isolation or its consequence, depression. To quote Grace Senior Living’s CEO, John Rijos, on the matter, “Our approach to senior living treats life as the incredible gift that it is.”
Most notably, Grace Senior Living uses principles of community-building and social interaction to support residents who need memory care services. The company’s Village Program offers tailored social programming that acknowledges a memory-sensitive resident’s former schedule, lifestyle, and interests. In doing so, organizers are able to provide a comforting sense of structure, purpose, and belonging that such residents might have otherwise struggled to find when isolated at home.
That said, living in an ALC is only one solution among many. Typically, communities like the Grace Senior Living are best-suited to seniors who have some savings set away for retirement. According to statistics provided by the insurance firm Genworth, the median annual cost for private-pay ALC living was $48,000 in 2018. While this is a feasible price for many, those with few savings may not have the means to move into a community-based residence. Other community-based options, however, are available.
Senior-Centered Community Services
Outreach programs offer isolated seniors the means to connect with others without moving into a senior-centered residential community. These services empower seniors to take part in social activities and engage with their peers at a low cost.
Case Study: Wider Circle
Wider Circle is a senior-centered health services company based in Redwood City, California. Its research-backed program works to combat the adverse health effects of social isolation by “improving mobilization, socialization, and sense of purpose.” The organization partners with local businesses to host events and social gatherings. In doing so, it hopes to give seniors the help they need to rebuild their social support structure and pursue a more active, healthy life.
The process of joining a local “circle” is simple. Seniors who want to participate must attend a kick-off event, which typically entails a meal and activity at a local business. After that, they can opt in or out of whatever circle-sponsored events they want. At each outing, trained facilitators guide participants through activities that are designed to enhance the group’s cohesion, inspire friendships, and encourage light exercise. Group activities include but are not limited to visits to local recreational venues, shared meals, and team sporting events.
Services like Wider Circle do require the seniors to take an active role in finding new friends and making new, more socially-centered routines, which may prove difficult for those already struggling with depression. However, Wider Circle’s model offers an effective and low-cost way to engage active seniors before they fall into isolated patterns.
Promoting social connections among isolated seniors is a necessary part of helping them live longer and happier lives. Baby Boomers will continue to retire and age — and as they do, they will need support to stave off the adverse health effects of long-term social isolation.