“Loneliness,” said Jimi Hendrix, “is such a … drag.” It’s an affliction everyone is familiar with, some of us more than others, but not so many people are aware that loneliness is more than just a drag–it’s a full-blown public health crisis.
This gap in awareness was part of the impetus for the 2018 Connectivity Summit on Rural Aging, held last week in Portland, Maine. The conference was inspired by the need to address the myriad challenges faced by rural older adults in the United States, but its broader focus was on the ageless issues of social isolation and loneliness.
To clear up any confusion about two very similar terms: Social isolation is the objective situation of not having enough social contact. Loneliness is the subjective state in which the interactions we have do not satisfy our longing for connection. The two are related, of course, but one can occur without the presence of the other–we can be lonely in a crowd, and isolated without feeling alone.
Older Americans in rural areas have a particular risk of becoming isolated. The flight of younger Americans toward urban areas means that many rural older adults live far apart from their families. Health and mobility issues, and a dearth of transportation alternatives beyond driving, can make it harder to get out of the house. These factors combined can lead to a life of unchosen solitude.
We know it hurts to be alone, but it’s also harmful to us. Social isolation has an effect on mortality comparable to that of smoking fifteen cigarettes per day, according to eye-opening research conducted by psychologist Julianne Holt Lunstad and many fellow researchers. Prolonged loneliness, too, can trigger a destructive biological response, a product of our species’ deep social tendencies. The impacts are perhaps best characterized by AARP — “loneliness can be lethal” but that lethality is certainly not limited to older people.
A tragic example of the universality of the problem is the death of Prince, a multimillionaire with millions of adoring fans. In 2016, the 57-year-old pop star died in his cavernous Paisley Park complex from an opioid overdose, to be discovered thirteen hours later by his paid staff. His dependence on painkillers, as is the case of many suffering Americans, seemed to come out of a deep, pervasive loneliness, which obsessed him. His worst fear, his friend Neal Karlen wrote, “was dying alone.”
“Social isolation and loneliness are the new chronic conditions, especially among older adults,” said Donato Tramuto, CEO of Tivity Health, the organizer of the Summit, and president and founder of Health eVillages. “Increasing awareness of this public health crisis and identifying creative solutions demands the collaborative IQ of multiple partners from the public and private sectors.”
I agree that today’s social disconnectedness is a peculiarly modern problem–and it’s not just about our aging population. It’s also driven by the ways we organize ourselves, design our physical environment and how we choose to spend our leisure time. Social scientists and urban planners talk about first, second, and third places. Our first place is the home; second place, the workplace. And third places are those settings where we step out of our personal bubbles and collide socially. They are our churches and any faith-based center, Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions and other community clubs, VFW halls, and other once plentiful buzzing hangout spots. For many reasons (declines in religious observance, the attraction of the TV screen) third places have been on the decline in the U.S. for decades. The result is that chance and planned collisions with other people and the connections we have with our communities are weaker than ever.
How can we revitalize–or replace–our third places? The elephant in the room at the conference was technology. Could new technologies be the answer to help older adults meet new people and stay involved? Or are the societal upheavals wrought by the tech world the very reason why we are so lonely today? It’s not as simple as that.
The first question, obviously, is what kind of technology you’re talking about. I’m dubious about the usefulness of social media in helping us to forge meaningful social connections. In my opinion social media is like a first date: everyone only puts their best selves out there, with no hope of getting underneath the surface. Not the right formula for combating loneliness. My MIT colleage Sherry Turkle coined the concerns about technology and isolation best – “alone together.” But as I write in The Longevity Economy, social apps like the 50-plus dating and friendship site Stitch, which digs a little deeper and brings into contact people who otherwise would probably never meet, may bring a material benefit to our social networks.
What about technological platforms that break into real life–like ride-hailing services? Jake Swanton of Lyft talked about the drastic changes in his company since its founding in 2012–far beyond “taking Millennials to and from beer halls.” Today, Lyft covers 95% of the United States, and 25% of Lyft rides are taken to or from underserved areas. Fifteen percent of Lyft users are caregivers arranging transportation for a care recipient. One million older adults are “organic” users of Lyft, meaning that they order rides themselves on the app using a smartphone. Transportation is an issue everyone in the policy sphere wants to talk about, but nobody seems to want to seriously address. What excites me about ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft, is that they are, well, actually out there, already helping a significant number of older adults go where they want, when they want, and not just in infrastructure-rich urban areas. Perhaps most importantly, they are taking them to places they want to go not just need to go – destinations that do not include doctors and grocery stores alone.
Democratic Representative Joe Kennedy III spoke at the Summit. Congressman Kennedy advocated for the preservation of programs that are proven to help rural older adults–Meals on Wheels, Senior Corps, Medicare. Particularly in rural areas, where there may not be enough density of population or wealth for market solutions such as meal or transportation services on-demand at the tap of an app to properly scale, these policies highlighted by Kennedy are an essential lifeline.
But equally important as preserving programs that already work is developing new solutions for our modern epidemic of social disconnectedness — whether they are new technologies, community initiatives, forward-thinking policies, or just plain increased awareness. Isolation is something that, by definition, we confront personally and alone. However, the first step to a solution begins with mobilizing forces like last week’s Summit to translate a personal problem into a public issue demanding national attention and action.
Written by: Joseph Coughlin
Reposted from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/josephcoughlin/2018/08/16/what-may-have-really-killed-prince-why-we-should-care/#52689e4955ae