Older Adult Social Isolation
December 19, 2023

Social Isolation: Resources to Help

Social Isolation: Resources to Help

By Colleen Scott, Advocacy Specialist

Social Isolation and loneliness are not new phenomena, but they have gained considerable attention recently – especially during and since the COVID-19 pandemic – given their impact on physical and mental health for individuals of all ages. 

Winter is an especially important time to draw attention to this issue – when individuals are more likely to withdraw from social activities during the colder months. Thankfully, NYSOFA has been addressing this issue head-on for several years, offering many resources to help. 

Why Social Isolation Matters  

Human beings are social creatures. Our connection to others enables us to survive and thrive. Absent these social connections, we struggle. Yet, as we age, changes in our lives – such as retirement, caregiving responsibilities, loss of friends and neighbors, not being able to drive, or changes in some of our daily functioning – can increase the risk of loneliness and isolation.  

Impact of Social Isolation

Loneliness and isolation are real, and their impact is measurable.

According to the CDC:

  • Social isolation is associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.
  • Social isolation significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes – a risk that may rival the risks of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
  • Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) are associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
  • Loneliness is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
  • Loneliness among heart failure patients is associated with a nearly four-fold increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.

According to a 2018 AARP Report:

  • Social isolation, or the lack of meaningful contact with others, costs the Medicare program $6.7 billion in additional spending every year.
  • Isolation is a clear risk factor for illness and death.
  • Spending associated with isolation is comparable to the costs of treating arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
  • The public health consequences of social isolation are similar to smoking 15 cigarettes daily.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that social isolation and loneliness increase the risks of:

  • Cognitive decline
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Weakened immune system
  • Anxiety
  • Alzheimer's Disease
  • Death
NYSOFA Resources to Combat Social Isolation and Loneliness

To address the issue of social isolation, NYSOFA has partnered with leading national organizations to provide many service and support innovations.

  • NYSOFA’s animatronic pet project has provided 27,000 companion robotic pets to older adults throughout New York State. These plush, "lifelike" robotic pets are designed to make realistic sounds and motions, providing comfort and companionship to individuals. Individuals interested in a pet can contact their local office for the aging to get screened for eligibility. Pets are also available to anyone at a discount using the NYS Discount Code NYS20. Find more information at https://aging.ny.gov/tools-and-innovations.
  • GetSetUp: NYSOFA’s partnership with GetSetUp has connected nearly 200,000 older adults to online courses and communities that help them learn new skills and interact with others who share their interests. The platform also provides an economic opportunity for older adults to teach classes and supplement their income by getting paid for their skill. Individuals can browse course offerings by visiting the NYSOFA partnership page at https://www.getsetup.io/partner/NYSTATE. Caregivers can also book a class for someone else at https://dost.gsudevelopment.com/.  
  • ElliQ: NYSOFA is working with Intuition Robotics to test the efficacy of AI companion technology for older adults – known as ElliQ – and have just released a report showing a 95% reduction in loneliness and high levels of engagement for older adult users of the technology. ElliQ is designed to foster independence and provide support for older adults through daily check-ins, assistance with wellness goals and physical activities, and more using voice commands and/or on-screen instructions. NYSOFA is working with local offices for the aging to identify older adults who would most benefit from the technology. Individuals who are interested can contact their Office for the Aging or read more at https://elliq.com/.
  • Pets Together: NYSOFA has partnered with Pets Together, a national non-profit organization, to connect older New Yorkers with the therapeutic power of pets using the Pets Together video chat service, which offers social interactions aimed at reducing loneliness and stress. Older New Yorkers can learn more about this free program and reserve a virtual visit directly at https://petstogether.org.
  • Reach Out and Play Intergenerational Game Events: In the fall of 2023, NYSOFA worked with over 130 aging services partners to host local game events that encourage intergenerational play as part of a national Reach Out and Play initiative. The Reach Out and Play events are sponsored by Ageless Innovation, maker of the animatronic pets that are a core part of NYSOFA's programs to combat social isolation. As part of this initiative, Hasbro – the maker of iconic board games like Scrabble and The Game of Life – has worked with Ageless Innovation to revamp these games so they are easier for older adults to participate in and enjoy them. Learn more about the programs and how to sponsor your own game events at https://agelessinnovation.com/home/reachoutandplay.
  • Friendly Calls and Friendly Visitor programs are overseen by many county-based Offices for Aging/AAA or other social service organizations. They are intended to reach people who live alone, are isolated, or express interest in some type of social connection. Participants who meet these criteria are assigned to a volunteer who calls or visits them weekly for conversation. Learn how to a adopt one of these programs in your community by watching these training programs provided by DOROT
     
Other Tips to Combat Social Isolation 
  • Consider volunteering. Learn more on NYSOFA’s Employment and Volunteering webpage.
  • Reach out. If there is an older person in your life, call or visit them regularly. If you have an older neighbor, reach out regularly.
  • Board and Card Games – Yahtzee, Scrabble, Solitaire, Concentration and Trivial Pursuit are games that can be played alone, or virtually online. These are areas where working memory functions. Joy for All has developed some new games specifically geared to older adults and has also re-envisioned some classics to make them easier for older adults to participate.
  • Puzzles are a great way to pass time, and studies have shown improvements in memory when older adults worked on puzzles for as little as 45 minutes a day, twice per week.
  • Brain-Training Computer Games can reduce dementia by up to 28%.
  • Memory Boxes are a good way of stimulating and recalling favorite memories. Build a collection of old photos, items reminiscent of work or volunteering, and any objects that mean something and put them in the box to peruse when bored. If someone is especially agitated, looking at these objects may have a calming effect.
  • Old movies. Many of us have old home videos or movies featuring family fun or our favorite performers. Furthermore, there are so many television channels and streaming platforms to choose from. Virtually any movie or classic TV show can be found and binged!
  • Books. Escape reality by diving into a novel. You probably have a small library to choose from, so gather a few hard covers or paperbacks and do some reading. If you have an e-reader, consider a new release. Many libraries have curbside pickup or delivery as well.
  • Exercise. Chair exercises, walking, riding a stationary bike, yoga, dance, Tai Chi, and almost anything that gets the body moving, will help strengthen muscles and improve mood and mental acuity by increasing oxygen and blood flow to the brain.
  • Crafts. Many people love to craft, and crafting can take many different forms. Knitting, needlepoint, painting, stenciling, stringing beads, arranging flowers or making musical instruments are just a few examples of crafts suitable for seniors.
  • Music. We all have our favorite songs, musicians, bands, and genres of music. Turn on your favorite tunes while you’re relaxing, cleaning, playing games, or exercising. Music has a way of soothing the soul!
  • Communicate. Reach out to family, friends, and neighbors to see how they’re doing. The recipient of a call, text, email, letter or card will feel very special and it will be good emotional support for you both! 
Social Isolation and Disparities

According to the CDC, current research suggests that immigrant, and lesbian, gay, bisexual populations experience loneliness more often than other groups. Latino immigrants, for example, “have fewer social ties and lower levels of social integration than U.S.-born Latinos.” First-generation immigrants experience stressors that can increase their social isolation, such as language barriers, differences in community, family dynamics, and new relationships that lack depth or history, the report states. Similarly, gay, lesbian, and bisexual populations tend to have more loneliness than their heterosexual peers because of stigma, discrimination, and barriers to care.

Additional Resources
  • AARP — Provides helpful information to older adults to help improve quality of life and provides access to Community Connection Tools. https://www.aarp.org/
  • Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) — There is a local office for the aging in every county in New York State (New York City has one office that covers all five boroughs). The dedicated people who work at your local office for the aging have the training, experience and local knowledge to help you access a variety of services and benefits. AAAs can also direct you to the appropriate agency or organization for help. They can link you to congregate and home-delivered meals, nutrition counseling, employment and volunteer opportunities, senior centers, transportation, information on wellness classes such as Tai Chi and diabetes management, in-home supports as well as support to family, friends, and neighbors who may be providing assistance to older adults and much more. https://aging.ny.gov/local-offices
  • Eldercare Locator   this free national service helps find local resources for older adults such as financial support, caregiving services, and transportation. It includes a brochure that shows how volunteering can help keep you socially connected. https://eldercare.acl.gov/Public/Index.aspx
  • National Council on Aging — Works with nonprofit organizations, governments, and businesses to provide community programs and services. This is the place to find what senior programs are available to assist with healthy aging and financial security, including the Aging Mastery Program that is shown to increase social connectedness and healthy eating habits. https://www.ncoa.org/
  • National Institute on Aging (NIA) — Provides materials on social isolation and loneliness for older adults, caregivers, and health care providers. Materials include health information, a print publication available to view or order no-cost paper copies, a health care provider flyer, and social media graphics and posts. https://www.nia.nih.gov/