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Your Health
A Noozhawk partnership with Cottage Health

Aging Alone: Seniors and Social Isolation an Emerging Concern

Health and well-being of our aging population affected by limited transportation, reduced financial resources

Social isolation tends to increase as people age. This issue results when there is a breakdown of a social network. While the issues vary from person to person, there are many identifiable factors that can contribute to social isolation and loneliness, including loss, death, declining physical health, mental illness, lack of transportation, communication barriers, reduced financial resources and other societal factors such as ageism. All of these issues can lead to a strain on a person’s social network at a time when they need it most.

A senior who is socially isolated may not be able to get the help needed to live independently, safely and with dignity. In many cases their daily needs might not be met.

“Of all seniors living alone and below the poverty line, one out of three sees neither friends nor neighbors for as much as two weeks at a time, and one out of five has no phone conversations with friends,” according to a study by Eric Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University.

United Neighborhood House’s report, Aging in the Shadows, discusses social isolation as a vicious cycle that is hard to break once the pattern has been set. This cycle, beginning with isolation and loneliness can lead to mild then severe depression, interpersonal conflict, challenges in making friends, lack of desire for social interaction, and more.

Not only does senior isolation affect health and wellness, but we continue to see that those who are the highest risk during emergencies are socially isolated seniors who don’t know where to turn for help. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, thousands of older New Yorkers were left dangerously isolated. In the 1995 Chicago heat wave socially isolated older persons had higher mortality rates. Also, during Hurricane Katrina isolated seniors faced severe challenges in accessing needed services.

As the population ages, many organizations have begun to focus on how to support independence and aging in place. Seniors themselves are selecting alternatives to retirement facilities to allow them to remain in their own homes and receive the needed services there, in a comfortable environment. Also, the Baby Boomer generation is coming into retirement in 2011. They are living longer, healthier lives and will therefore need more from the already stretched infrastructure of aging services.

There are many programs, services and models that can help create an elder-friendly community and reverse senior Isolation, including:

» Community centers and other integrated program settings that can address a breadth of issues in one location.

» Programs that serve seniors where they are, such as supportive service programs or naturally occurring retirement communities.

» Day programs that provide places and ways for seniors to meet and connect up with people who might have similar interests.

» Programs and services that help seniors feel like they have a sense of purpose.

» Programs that keep seniors connected to technology such as the Internet, conference calls, and other ways to connect up with friends and family.

» Caregiver support to ensure existing relationships stay strong and remain in tact.

» Case management and mental health services that address the complex issues that occur with age.

» Home visits and phone calls to increase interaction.

» Elder abuse prevention and supportive services.

» Increased, financially accessible transportation for social activities and supports.

As we move forward we need to continue to grow and expand the resources in our community that can help us combat senior isolation. The United Neighborhood Houses report asserts that communities need to maximize community assets, address service gaps that still exist, continue collaboration and partnership between government and nonprofit entities to ensure services are efficient and cost-effective.

Since 1899, Family Service Agency of Santa Barbara has been working in the community to provide hope, strength and stability. Its mission is to strengthen and advocate for families and individuals of all ages and diversities, helping to create and preserve a healthy community. Through counseling, case management, information and referral, advocacy and mentoring, FSA’s programs give children, families and seniors a hand up to success and self-sufficiency. Mental health and case management services are provided to seniors and caregivers in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara and Lompoc.

For more information or assistance on senior isolation or other issues associated with aging, call 805.965.1001.

— Kelly Adams is with Family Service Agency of Santa Barbara.

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