“My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me.”
Green Day, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”
I am surrounded by people, I am loved and respected, and yet I often feel lonely. I am about to turn 60, the young side of older adulthood, but I’ve experienced many of the things that make older people feel loneliness – loss of close family and friends, grief, the empty nest.
My wife died while we were on vacation in Australia from another pandemic – the swine flu of 2009. I became a single father of my 8-year-old daughter when we came home alone from that trip. I was not good at asking for help. I was not good at connecting with others outside work; that was my wife’s role and skillset. I realized then that I needed to connect with others, ask for support, be a part of our community, a part of her school. I had to help my daughter with grief while balancing my career and my own feelings of loss and loneliness.
2020 has been a turbulent year for all of us: a new global pandemic, racial inequality and strife, seemingly unfixable political divides, and overwhelming economic isolation. Older adults are facing two pandemics right now; the most obvious is the coronavirus, which has caused the need to physically distance from one another to keep each other safe. The second pandemic is the spread of social isolation and loneliness among our elders.
Unfortunately, physical distancing to protect ourselves against the spread of COVID-19 exacerbates isolation in older people, creating a perfect storm where one pandemic makes the other much harder to bear.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight out of ten deaths during the pandemic have been among seniors. And while seniors are among the first in line for the vaccine, other safety nets in place to catch the elderly are unraveling quickly.
There are, however, proven ways to combat isolation and loneliness for older adults. The Arts and Health Journal recently published a study from the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California, San Francisco, “Effects of Visual & Literary Arts Interventions on Well-Being of Older Adults.” Findings suggest that participation in a 12-week visual or literary arts program has multiple benefits for diverse older adults. From interacting with new people and developing meaningful relationships to facilitated happiness and laughter, participants overwhelmingly reported an improved sense of emotional well-being. The study evaluated classes led by artists in affordable senior housing communities.
Social isolation and loneliness are not the same thing. About 28 percent of older adults in the United States, or 13.8 million people, live alone, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but many of them are not lonely or socially isolated. At the same time, some people feel lonely despite being surrounded by family and friends. Loneliness is a subjective perception stemming from a disparity between people’s actual social relationships and the ones they desire. Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death. Two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated.
The risks of social isolation and loneliness compare with smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed those associated with physical inactivity and obesity. According to researchers, prolonged isolation is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Isolation and loneliness are also costly. An estimated $6.7 billion in annual federal spending is attributable to social isolation among older adults. Poor social relationships were associated with a 29 percent increase in risk of coronary heart disease and a 32 percent rise in the risk of stroke. Authorities expect the financial and public health impact of loneliness to increase as the nation’s population ages.
In 1999, I founded an organization called EngAGE, which currently provides life enhancing classes, programs and events in 55 affordable senior and multigenerational housing communities in California, Oregon and Minnesota, serving more than 5,500 seniors and hundreds of families with children. Residents attend classes in the arts, lifelong learning, well-being and community building and civic engagement. We connect elders to the younger generations through intergenerational programs like arts, gardening, cooking and mentoring. We have found that there are sure-fire ways to combat loneliness and isolation by helping people change isolating behaviors and create lasting social connections, replacing loneliness with feelings of belonging, purpose and community.
Before moving to the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, Suzanne Knode, 67 and surviving on social security income alone, well below the poverty level, was depressed, had suffered a traumatic accident and was in chronic pain. After moving into the unique apartment community, Suzanne attended an EngAGE writing class.
She wrote a screenplay as a class assignment, and her project, Bandida, was made into a short film. The making of her film, and her story of reinvention, was profiled on national television on Showtime’s This American Life. Suzanne is now working on several new film and stage projects and has also taken up painting in an EngAGE art class. She has returned to full health with a new lease on life.
Arts programs like the EngAGE classes proven effective in the UCSF study, in addition to others like wellness, lifelong learning and intergenerational civic engagement, can be delivered at low cost in every affordable housing community in the country. By making these programs a requirement and providing some additional funding for them, this would create an effective social intervention to combat the isolation and loneliness pandemic.
My own experience with loneliness has helped me understand much better what older adults face in the other “pandemic” of isolation. If there has been a gift in the coronavirus pandemic, it has surely shined a light on just how alone older people feel in our society and that we really need to look for solutions to create connectivity for all ages.