Loneliness is a killer, a health risk factor that’s been equated to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

There’s a Loneliness Epidemic in America, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. HRSA’s infographic here tells us that there’s a 45% greater risk of mortality among older people who feel lonely. Given that millions of seniors in the U.S. feel lonely on a regular basis, that translates into a huge risk of death for so many older people who feel disconnected from others.

“As a force in shaping our health, medical care pales in comparison with the circumstances of the communities in which we live. Few aspects of community are more powerful than is the degree of connectedness and social support for individuals,” HRSA’s research has found.

One in five people over 65 feel lonely every single day, GreatCall found in a survey conducted among older Americans and featured in the report, Fighting Social Isolation Among Older Adults.

GreatCall conducted a survey among seniors to gauge their perspectives on personal health issues, loneliness, and the use of technology. GreatCall collaborated with my go-to expert on aging and technology, Laurie Orlov, who writes the always-insightful Aging in Place Technology Watch.

The survey yielded several findings about how older people cope themselves with loneliness, and some relatively simple approaches to mitigating those lonely feelings.

Phone calls made the biggest impact in helping people feel less lonely, among 55% of older people. This was followed by 22% of folks who believed that community organizations (offline) made the greatest impact in reducing lonely feelings, followed by online social networks among 13% of seniors.

Older people say what would be most helpful to help maintain social connections would be planning activities in their communities and with their families, followed by simply connecting more via cellphone.

Friends and family are the go-to touchpoints for older people to contact to chat about loneliness and depression. Fewer than one in five older people said they’d want to talk with a doctor or psychologist.

Planning to see a friend or family member ranked the top personal strategy older people undertake to feel better, followed by a call or video chat with friends or family.

Activities older people most enjoy doing by themselves to stay busy and counter feelings of loneliness are to watch TV or a movie or read a book or magazine, both tasks cited by 25% of seniors. Exercising and staying physical active was identified by 19% of older people, and doing hobbies and projects at home for 12% of people.

The survey was conducted among 1,000+ U.S. adults 65 years of age and over in August 2019.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Some 28% of older people who feel socially isolated report being in fair or poor physical health compared to 13% of those who said they hardly ever feel isolated, according to the National Poll on Healthy Aging conducted by the University of Michigan and published in March 2019. Similarly, 17% of respondents who said they felt isolated rated their mental health as fair or poor compared to 2% of those who reported hardly ever feeling isolated.

There’s a tendency these days to medicalize “normal” everyday life situations.  In the case of loneliness, it’s a serious health risk that leads to clinical and mental health conditions that could be mitigated by a variety of interventions.

There’s a tendency today in health care to want to tech-enable solutions that can often be done more simply with a light human touch and a dose of empathy. In the case of loneliness, technology solutions most recently are seen coming out of voice technology: “Alexa, cheer me up.” An example of this model of voice tech engagement comes from Sagely, which is channeling through independent living communities.

That’s one way to go about addressing one layer of loneliness.

But consider the grace of a simple phone call with a loving human voice on the other end of the line, generating endorphins and joy.

Or a neighbor asking Mrs. Jones to go to the local bingo game tomorrow. Or Joe’s former younger co-worker calling retiree Joe to go to his son’s local high school baseball game on Friday night.

GreatCall’s research also pointed to entertainment and reading as go-to tactics that older people use in their DIY’ing of self-care. So consider the power delivered by a subscription box of movies (say, through a streaming service) or books (whether paper-based, digital, or via Audible). Netflix-for-health?

GreatCall was acquired by Best Buy in 2018, which I discussed here in Health Populi. The retailer has realized its core business as a channel for buying hardware and consumer electronics needed reinvention; think Geek Squad-meets-the-Silver-Tsunami.

I’ve coined this as “service-as-a-service.” In the case of loneliness, there’s a high calling of service in just connecting via a phone call, a date for tea, or sharing movie time watching a nostalgic film with your older neighbor, grandparent, or fellow church-goer.

2 Comments on Phone Calls, Social Plans, and Entertainment As Prescriptions for Older Peoples’ Loneliness

Michael Jones said : Guest Report a month ago

Social isolation is compounded by hearing loss. 50% of those over 75 live with a debilitating level of hearing impairment (NIH - July 2018). While the telephone continues to be a primary means of social access, hearing loss directly impacts one's ability to effectively communicate using the phone. Captioning technology can significantly bridge that challenge but must become more broadly available to benefit the population at large.

Roger Holzberg said : Guest Report 2 months ago

Jane - I LOVE this blog and it is super timely for me and us. We are (finally?) growing out of the pediatric world into adult and seniors and are meeting tomorrow with Pacific PACE re: a pilot for their seniors - creating connection, community and immersive healing experiences for their residents. Hope all is well and wonderful in your world! roger (and jocelyn)

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