Solving the Problem of Social Isolation, COVID-19 and Older Adults

By Nathan Boucher and Anna Muthalaly

We are a gerontologist and a student studying health policies related to aging, and the scenario above, while fictional, is quite representative of the lives of older adults being served in our communities each day.

During COVID-19, many realize what older Americans have known for years: social isolation can have negative effects on health. All too often, older Americans don’t get the social interaction they need as humans to stay healthy. Without those interactions, people are at higher risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and depression.

Telephone and video communications can enhance quality of life for people and act as a safety net. Investing in communications for older people can make a genuine impact on problems we associate with aging.

The US has funded programs, like those delivered by AmeriCorps, and limited senior outreach exists in pockets across the country. Expanded older adult outreach programs could be delivered in much the same way — by volunteers looking to help. Participants might be referred by their healthcare providers, faith-based organizations, veteran’s services organizations, and area aging services. This can and should be a national program.

We could connect older adults seeking connection to others willing to laugh and share some of life’s journey. Further benefits might include early attention to health which could avoid stressful and expensive hospitalizations. This preventive approach may be of interest to healthcare organizations, insurers, and tax payers.

Isolation can be draining; many of us are learning tools to combat those effects. Through community organizing and technology utilization, we can help our most vulnerable community members.

Dr. Nathan Boucher is a gerontologist and faculty at Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy and School of Medicine. Ms. Muthalaly is an undergraduate student at Duke University.



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