Is the newest health epidemic…loneliness?
Recent reports suggest that loneliness is a far-reaching health issue, particularly for the elderly. The group of adults at greatest risk is older men and women living in rural areas, reports Joseph Coughlin, founder of the MIT AgeLab and author of The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market. Dr. Coughlin calls these individuals “a largely unseen and unheard America.”
A recently released poll commissioned by Tivity Health shows that 29 percent of rural adults do not experience daily social interaction. Even if they want to make the effort, it’s often more challenging for the older person. The reason: Many deal with physical limitations including vision loss (39 percent), hearing loss (36 percent) and mobility loss (23 percent). Even if there are no major physical issues, sometimes there are transportation problems. (However, these reasons are all too familiar to older people who live in cities, as well.)
Volunteer and community groups are seeking a variety of solutions to combat social isolation especially due to geography, such as virtual communities like Well Connected in California. Others take the solutions to the populations in need, such as Senior Planet’s activities in Plattsburgh New York, specifically to serve a more rural population. Besides hosting 5- and 10-week digital technology courses geared to people 60-plus, the Senior Planet Exploration Center in upstate New York offers workshops, talks, and social events, and recently expanded to include additional courses at the Malone Adult Center.
The upstate New York Center has gone one step further with its Senior Planet @ Home program. Trainers deliver once-a-week, one-on-one training to men and women in their own homes over a five week period. “We teach them computer and iPad basics first,” says Marco DiGirolomo, Senior Planet’s North Country Program Manager. After that? Isolated seniors learn to use social media. DiGirolomo finds the work deeply gratifying. “What a difference it can make to an individual who can’t readily leave home to learn how to connect with friends and loved ones via Facebook, Facetime or other means!” he says. “They can see one another and interact in real time – it’s a real isolation breaker.”
This successful program for more social engagement among underserved populations has inspired Senior Planet to offer similar programs elsewhere in the US. (Learn more about Senior Planet Montgomery County MD here and Senior Planet Colorado here). There are plans to offer its services in San Antonio, TX, (learn more here) at senior centers throughout the city and with other community based partnerships (and in multiple languages). Mobility-impaired seniors will also have the opportunity to receive visits at home and connect with Senior Planet’s online learning platform and to other members – a key tool to reduce isolation and encourage social engagement.
As Senior Planet North Country member Sylvia Brown, 94, says, “Technology isn’t easy, but, with the help of Senior Planet, I’ve persisted. Now, when I go to my iPad, I can go anywhere in the world.”