The Problem

Social isolation is widespread and a significant cause of poor health and wellness outcomes for older adults. Despite common assumptions, older adults often do not have access to the practical and emotional supports they need to stay healthy as they age (Source: Social Isolation Among Older People). As many as 16% of older adults report severe loneliness (Source: Loneliness, Isolation And The Health Of Older Adults: Do We Need A New Research Agenda ), frequently the result of ongoing social isolation, which is preventable.

While loneliness and social isolation overlap, they are not the same thing. Loneliness is a subjective negative feeling related to lack of a social network or companionship. Social isolation is the objective lack of meaningful social contacts and interactions. (Source: Social Isolation: A Predictor Of Mortality Comparable To Traditional Clinical Risk Factors)

Social isolation and loneliness can cause a host of negative impacts:

As people age, they are more likely to live alone. (Source: US Census Bureau, Population Survey, June 2017.) Most older people prefer to remain living independently in their own homes, yet living alone is a risk factor for social isolation and loneliness. Approximately 13.8 million older adults in the United States who are 65 or older (28% of the population) live alone, as do 24% of older adults in Alameda County. (Source: Alameda County Public Health Department Community Assessment, Planning, and Evaluation (CAPE) Unit.)

Social isolation and loneliness typically arise from a complex interplay of additional factors, including:

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Mobility and/or sensory impairments
  • Major life transitions
  • Being a caregiver of a severely impaired person
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Environmental factors, including living in rural, unsafe, or inaccessible communities
  • Having a mental health condition
  • Having a small social network
  • Limited English proficiency
  • Being a member of a vulnerable group, such as women, people of color, immigrants, refugees, and LGBTQ persons

As with any vulnerability, when the impact of a unique constellation of risk factors overwhelms the strength and resilience of protective factors, an older adult may experience negative consequences associated with social isolation and loneliness. (Resource: AARP Foundation. Framework for Isolation in Adults Over 50)