Experts Say Isolation and Loneliness Impacting More Older Americans

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 30, 2017

Sarah Hosseini, a blogger on Scary Mommy, a website bringing entertainment and information to millennial mothers, penned a touching story about Marleen Brooks, a California resident, who came home to find a heartbreaking hand-written note from Wanda, her 90-year-old neighbor, asking her to be friends.

Wanda wrote: “Would you consider to become my friend. I’m 90 years old – live alone. All my friends have passed away. I’m so lonesome and scared. Please I pray for someone.”

According to Hosseini’s blog posting, Brooks shared this note with KTVU News Anchor Frank Somerville, who posted it on his Facebook page. She responded to the posting by saying, “Came home to this note from a lady that lives down the street from me. Makes my heart sad, but on the bright side it looks like I will be getting a new friend.”

That evening Brooks visited her new friend, bearing a gift of cupcakes. After the visit, she wrote to Somerville describing this initial visit (which was posted on his Facebook page), says Hosseini. In this update posting, Brooks observed, “She’s such as sweet lady! And she was over the moon when we came over.” Brooks reported what Wanda said during the impromptu get together: “I hope you didn’t think I was stupid for writing you, but I had to do something. Thank you so much for coming over. I’ve lived here for 50 years and don’t know any of my neighbors.”

Wanda shared with her new acquaintance that she is on oxygen has congestive heart failure, osteoporosis and other age-related ailments, and her two surviving sons do not live by her,” noted Hosseini’s blog posting.

Zeroing in on a Growing Societal Problem

Wanda’s isolation and loneliness is not a rare occurrence. It happens every day throughout the nation. The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging recently put a spotlight on the growing number of Americans who are socially isolated and lonely, like Wanda, and expert witnesses detailed the negative consequences of this tragic societal problem.

In Room 403 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Bob Casey, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, held a morning hearing on April 27, 2017, “Aging Without Community: The Consequences of Isolation and Loneliness.”

he Senate Aging panel hearing (lasting almost two hours), the first in a two-part series, took a close look at the mental and physical health effects of social isolation and loneliness. The next hearing will explore ways to reconnect older people to their communities.

“The consequences of isolation and loneliness are severe: negative health outcomes, higher health care costs, and even death. The root problem is one that we can solve by helping seniors keep connected with communities,” said Senator Collins in her opening statement. “Just as we did when we made a national commitment to cut smoking rates in this country, we should explore approaches to reducing isolation and loneliness. Each has a real impact on the health and well-being of our seniors,” noted the Maine Republican Senator.

Adds, Senator Bob Casey, “Older Americans are vital to the prosperity and well-being of our nation.” The Democratic Senator said, “Our work on the Aging Committee to ensure that we all remain connected to community as we age is important to maintaining that vitality. It is for that reason that we, as a federal government, need to sustain and improve our investments in programs that help seniors stay connected — from Meals on Wheels to rural broadband to transportation services.”

When approached for her thoughts about the Senate Aging panel, Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer said, “We know that social isolation and loneliness has severe negative effects on older Americans and we’re pleased the US Senate Committee on Aging held a hearing on this important issue. As they explore solutions for social isolation and loneliness amongst older Americans, AARP looks forward to working with them on these issues in 2017.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse says, “When seniors get involved, the community benefits from their valuable contributions. And the personal connections seniors make engaging in the community can help them stay healthy and productive.” Whitehouse, who sits on the Senate Aging panel, will work to protect funding for senior centers and programs that Rhode Island seniors rely on to stay connected, like Meals on Wheels and Senior Corps.”

Social Isolation is a “Silent Killer”

Speaking before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging today, social work professor Lenard W. Kaye, DSW, PhD, urged lawmakers to support programs that help older adults stay connected to their communities.

Kaye serves as director of the University of Maine Center on Aging. Joining three other experts, he reported to the committee that social isolation is a “silent killer” — due to placing people at higher risk for a variety of poor health outcomes — and he warned that more Americans are living in isolation than ever before.

“The prevalence may be as high as 43 percent among community dwelling older adults,” Kaye said. “And the risk is high as well for caregivers of older adults given that caregiving can be a very isolating experience.”

Kaye’s testimony also highlighted the state of current research in solving the problem of social isolation among older adults.

“Due to the various life events that can trigger social isolation, from death of a significant other, to loss of transportation to health decline, effective interventions will need to be diverse and they will need to be tailored to the personal circumstances of the isolated individual,” he said.

Kaye added that there is still significant progress to be made in determining what works for helping to reduce social isolation. Lack of rigor in studies of interventions aimed at reducing loneliness can make it difficult to evaluate some of these strategies.

In Pima County, 46 percent of nearly 2,300 seniors surveyed in its 2016 community needs assessment cited social isolation as a significant concern of those living alone, said W. Mark Clark, president of the Pima Council on Aging.

In his testimony, Clark says, “Changes to mobility, cognitive ability or health status can cause an individual to hold back from previously enjoyed social activities. Older adults in rural areas who can no longer driver are at incredible risk of physical and social isolation unless transportation options are available.”

“While aging at home is cited as a top priority by a majority of older people, and doing so has both emotional and economic benefits, aging in place at home can also lead to isolation,” said Clark, noting that connections to the community wane as one gets older due to less opportunities to build new social networks.

In her testimony, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology researcher at Brigham Young University, estimated that over 8 million seniors are affected by isolation and social disconnect is increasing.

Holt-Lunstad told the Senators that research shows that social isolation and loneliness is as dangerous as being obese, as risky as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. and associated with higher rates of heart disease, a weakened immune system, anxiety, dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and nursing facility admissions.

Finally, Witness Rick Creech, who was born with cerebral palsy, shared to the Senate Aging panel how disabilities can isolate a person. He described how an alternative communication (AAC) device, costing $10,000, a van concerted for a powered wheel chair passenger and smart home equipment to help him grow a “productive, independent adult.”

Meals on Wheels Program Vital Program for Isolated Seniors

It was clear to Senate Aging panel members and to expert witnesses that local Meals on Wheels programs can bring good nutrition and companionship to older American’s reducing social isolation and loneliness. Over two years ago, a Brown University study confirmed another benefit of visitors regularly knocking on the doors of seniors in need: a significant reduction in their feelings of loneliness.

“This continues to build the body of evidence that home-delivered meals provide more than nutrition and food security,” said study lead author Kali Thomas, assistant professor of health services, policy and practice in the Brown University School of Public Health and a researcher at the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Thomas, a former Meal on Wheels volunteer said that the study is one of few to rigorously examine the long-presumed psychological benefits of home-delivered meal service. She believes it is the first randomized, controlled trial to assess the effect on loneliness, which has been linked by many studies to a greater risk for medical problems, health care utilization, and mortality.

“In a time when resources are being further constrained and demand is increasing, it is important that we have evidence that guides decision-making in terms of what services to provide and how best to provide them,” Thomas said.

Senator Susan Collins, chair of the U.S. Select Senate Committee on Aging, sees Meals on Wheels as policy strategy to address the growing number of isolated seniors and their loneliness. At the Senate Aging panel, Collins said, “For many, Meals on Wheels is not just about food – it’s about social sustenance, also. Seniors look forward to greeting the driver with a bit of conversation.” And the Republican Senator called for adequate funding to the nationwide Meals on Wheels network, comprising 5,000 local community-based programs. President Trump’s proposed cuts to Meals on Wheels were, “pennywise and pound foolish because in the end they’re going to cause more hospitalizations, more nursing home admissions, and poor health outcomes.”

Like Brooks, we should reach out to our older isolated neighbors in our community. A simple gesture like this can have a lasting, positive impact on both parties.

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Trump Budget Proposal Makes Draconian Cuts to Aging Programs

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 19, 2017

Since his inauguration, GOP President Trump/s controversial and surprising Cabinet picks, some who have even called for the elimination of federal agencies that they were appointed to oversee, has sent a chilling message to the nation. That is business as usual is over inside the Washington Beltway, especially as to how federal dollars will be spent. The release of Trump’s first budget proposal, for fiscal year 2018, reveals draconian cuts throughout the federal government, this causing alarm among aging advocacy groups.

Trump Slashes Funding for Aging Programs and Services

James Firman, President and CEO, of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Aging (NCOA), notes Trump’s 62 page $.15 trillion budget proposal to remake the nation’s federal agencies and the programs they provide eliminates the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), which provides job training and placement for adults 55 and over who have limited incomes and are trying to make ends meet. “Last year under SCSEP, 70,000 older adults received on-the-job training while providing nearly 36 million hours of staff support to 30,000 organizations, he says, noting that the value of this work exceeded $800 million, or nearly twice the program’s appropriations.

Trump’s budget proposal also zeros out the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides assistance to low-income households to meet the costs of electricity, heating, and cooling, says Firman, noting that about a third of the nearly 7 million households receiving LIHEAP benefits include an older adult aged 60 or older.

Finally, Trump’s budget proposal eliminates the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which funds volunteer programs that serve distressed communities and vulnerable population, says Firman, noting that three Senior Corps programs (the Foster Grandparent Program, Senior Companion Program, and Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), will lose funding. “Together, these programs provide the nation with approximately 96 million hours of service, with a value of $2.1 billion,” he says.

“While the President’s budget blueprint does not cut Social Security Administration (SSA) funding (unlike the drastic reductions in non-defense discretionary spending), the 0.2% increase for SSA does little to solve serious customer service deficiencies for Social Security beneficiaries,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM). “Seven years ago, the SSA’s budget was cut by 10% (after adjusting for inflation), just as waves of Baby Boomers were beginning to retire and place a strain on the agency’s resources,” he says.

Richtman noted that while the numbers of Social Security beneficiaries were increasing, SSA was forced to implement a hiring freeze in 2016 and was not able pay its workers overtime. As a result, hold times on the SSA toll-free customer service number are now an average 15 minutes, more than 60 SSA field offices around the country have been shuttered, and the average wait time for a disability hearing has climbed up to 590 days.

Richtman points out that one million people are awaiting their scheduled disability hearing. “The disability case backlog and customer service will only get worse under the flat operating budget proposed by the President. To make up for previous cuts and restore vital services, the National Committee supports a 7% increase in the SSA’s operating budget,” he says.

NCPSSM’s Richtman warns that Trump’s “skinny budget” may keep millions of vulnerable seniors from participating in the Meals on Wheels program. As Meals on Wheels America has pointed out, Trump’s budget blueprint eliminates the U.S. Department of Human Development’s (HUD) Community Services Block Grant and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), on which some local Meals on Wheels programs rely on to deliver nutritious meals, safety checks, and friendly visits to seniors who need these services. (The President’s budget blueprint does not mention the Older Americans Act, which provides 35 percent of Meals on Wheels funding nationally.)

Richtman calls on President Trump to ride along with a Meals on Wheels delivery van and see for himself how seniors thrive on the meals they receive and the much-needed human interaction that comes with the food. “Maybe then he would move to protect – rather than cut – this vital program for our nation’s seniors,” he says.

Budget Proposal Puts Food Delivery Program on Budgetary Chopping Block

Trump’s elimination of HUD’s CDBG program in his proposed budget proposal will drastically impact many Meals on Wheels programs across the nation, but, fortunately Meals on Wheels of RI (MOWRI) will not be hit as hard, says Heather Amaral, executive director of Meals on Wheels of RI. But, Rhode Island’s only non-profit home-delivered meal program, will be indirectly impacted by Trumps CDBG cuts, she worries, noting that other programs that support her work receive these HUD funds, specifically, community centers that house our Capital City Café sites or local drop-off sites for the Home Delivered program. The Senior Community Service Employment Program that provides staff for several of our Café sites is also slated for elimination in President Trump’s “Skinny Budget.”

Amaral also is concerned about Trump cutting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ budget by 18 percent. “Our Older Americans Act Title III funding flows through this department. It is safe to assume that this significant cut will result in a reduction of our funding—funding that has remained at stagnant for over 10 years,” she says.

“It is impossible to predict any service cuts until a final federal budget is approved and any cuts to MOWRI are known. Any funding reductions will have a negative impact on her nonprofit agency’s ability to keep up with the increased demand of Rhode Island’s growing senior population,” says Amaral.

“Our programs directly address issues that are critical to Rhode Island’s vulnerable homebound seniors,” she says, noting that last year, MOWRI delivered 345,262 meals to over 2,560 homebound residents.

Last Thursday, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney defended the Trump budget proposal cuts to the widely popular Meals on Wheels program. He told reporters that the program “sounds great” but is “not showing any results.”

Amaral counters by saying that research is providing the tremendous benefits of participating in the meals and wheels program — for seniors, homebound, family members, municipalities and the Rhode Island

The Brown University “More than a Meal” Report (published 2015), a randomized, controlled study of Meals on Wheels Programs across the country, reported that those who received daily-delivered meals experienced the greatest improvements in health and quality of life indicators,” says Amaral. The most vulnerable of our recipients, those who live alone, were more likely to report decreases in worry about being able to remain in home and improvements in feelings of isolation and loneliness, she noted.

Meanwhile, a U.S. Administration on Aging (AoA) Study, published in September 2105, found that those receiving daily-delivered meals are more likely to report improvements in mental and physical health, reductions in feelings of isolation and anxiety about being able to remain at home, and lower rates of hospitalization and falls, adds Amaral.

“In that same report, AoA statistics show that a home delivered meal program can deliver a year’s worth of meals to a senior for the same cost as one day in the hospital, or one week in a nursing home, notes Amaral.

Speaking at the Hubert Humphrey Building dedication in Washington, D.C. on November 1, 1977, former U.S. Vice President (1965-69) Hubert Humphrey stated “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” A quick read of the Trump’s budget proposal revealing huge cuts for domestic programs, it’s clear to many that his Administration has failed it’s test.

If you want to learn more about MOWRI, sign up for meals, volunteer or donate, please visit http://www.rimeals.org or call 401-351-6700.

AARP Rhode Island Web Report Puts Spotlight on Hunger

Published December 28, 2012, Pawtucket Times

Especially during the holiday festivities this week the plight of Rhode Island’s hungry seniors in Providence’s West End Community and throughout the Ocean State, may have remained hidden to many Rhode Islanders, especially at Christmas Dinner, who gathered with families and friends to eat turkey, ham, the fixings, topped off with delicious pastries, and even pies.

But with the funding support of AARP Foundation’s Drive to End Hunger, AARP Rhode Island officially launches its Hungry in the West End investigative web report next week, to ratchet up the public’s awareness that seniors do go hungry every day in this Providence neighborhood and throughout Rhode Island’s 39 Cities and Towns.

Executive Director, Kathleen S. Connell, of AARP Rhode Island, notes that, according the USDA statistics, 67,000 Rhode Island households are considered “food insecure,” which means families do not always have the financial ability to purchase adequate food. “Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of Rhode Island households,” she adds, “receive SNAP (Food Stamp) benefits.

Targeting the West End of Providence

According to Connell, the West End of Providence is the city’s — and the state’s – most economically challenged community. The unemployment rate among its largely Hispanic population exceeds 20 percent, more than double the state average, she says.

Connell adds that hidden in the West End are the “elderly hungry,” whose “food insecurity” is reflected in the number of people who must rely on the federal SNAP program, Meals on Wheels, congregate meals sites at senior centers and neighborhood food pantries to eat.

To get the story out about Senior hunger, former journalist and now AARP Rhode Island’s Director of Communications, John Martin, worked closely with former Providence Journal reporter, Jody McPhillips to investigate and put this issue on the radar screen of the general public as well as the Rhode Island General Assembly and state policy makers.

One disturbing fact came to light during Martin and McPhillips’ interviews, is that resources to relieve hunger are “stretched thin. Federal and state funding to end hunger have not kept pace with the problem. For instance, the Rhode Island General Assembly funding for Meals on Wheels is below funding levels of four years ago, before the nation’s worst recession began.

The Web-based reports, to premiere on Friday, January 4, 2013 at http://www.aarp.org/ri, clearly showcase this daunting domestic issue. What you will see are McPhillips’s eight separate stories, added one per day, many parts of which are supplemented by links to Martin’s videos. They range from extended interviews with McPhillips’s sources, to vignettes shot on various locations, including at the Rhode Island Food Bank, with a Meals on Wheels driver, at food pantries and senior centers, and at the Sodexo family food weekend backpacks program. Also, Martin has put together an overarching video in documentary form that will be posted on the site in segments ranging from four to five minutes each.

Before next week’s premiere you can watch a video preview of this project at – the Web site listed above.

Hunger, One of America’s Biggest Domestic Issues

Connell says that “Hunger and goes hand in hand with a host of serious health consequences – including diabetes, depression, even malnutrition. These are big issues that America faces today. It’s not just a ‘senior problem,’ it’s a societal problem, too. As someone has posted on our Facebook page, senior hunger is simply a disgrace.

“One of our conclusions [noted in the Web-based reports] is that that a lot is being done to help address senior hunger. But federal and state money is not a one-sized fits all solution. For the truly isolated seniors – especially those with disabilities and health issues — well-stocked food pantries may not be a practical resource,” noted Connell.

“We think people who read and watch Hungry in the West End will reach their own conclusions about how we tackle this on a one-to-one basis. It’s a call to action for people to be more aware of senior hunger and to reach out personally to those who might need help,” says Connell.

Connell asks: “Is there someone you can check on? Can you offer someone a ride to the supermarket when you go shopping? Or offer to pick something up? Can you visit a food pantry on their behalf? Perhaps you can ask if they would like some help in signing up for Meals on Wheels or applying for SNAP.”

Connell even knows of a group in one Rhode Island community where “volunteering” means preparing an extra meal each week for someone in need.

For AARP Rhode Island’s John Martin, “I can only say it has been a privilege to become better educated about senior hunger in Rhode Island. Jody and I met scores of people making a difference. But we also saw the great need that is out there. Each step of the way, however, we kept questioning who we were missing. The sad fact is that isolated seniors – by definition – can be all but invisible. In fact, one person said that first contact with some hungry and suffering seniors is a response to a 911 call.

“A lot of talk about hunger is focused on people out of work who are trying to feed their families,” says Martin. But this project brings the issue of senior hunger to the forefront — a problem that may not change much even if the economy makes a healthy rebound, he believes.

Martin states, “It’s not as if a stronger economy means isolated seniors on fixed incomes are going to have more money to spend on utilities, prescription medicines and groceries. And it has always been true that when seniors are forced to choose among those three expenses, groceries likely will be last on the list.”

A Preview….

Aptly put, the problem seems simple but not the solutions, so says McPhillips in her first Web report.

Luz Navarro, a diabetic with part of her left foot amputated, has been on dialysis for four years. The 62-year-old former insurance agent is now housebound, living with her cat. The independently-minded Navarro, can barely stand to cook at the stove and must now rely on Meals on Wheels, delivering her lunch five times a week.

McPhillips illustrates how difficult it is for older person’s to get enough to eat. Navarro, like many of the State’s elderly who are homebound, can’t drive to get to the market, or to a food pantry when money is tight. Nor can she walk to a Senior Center to have lunch and socialize with others.

As McPhillips quipps, “while pundits debate,” Mrs. Navarro needs to eat. While some in Congress denounce the social safety net for creating a culture of dependency, others call for funding to provide food for the needy even with a huge federal deficit.

Senior Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) makes an appearance, calling for the continuation of funding to the state’s SNAP program to feed the growing number of hungry.

Also, Catherine Taylor, director of the state Division of Elderly Affairs, says she sees a future looking darker rather than brighter, for Navarro, and other homebound seniors.

In an era of shrinking budgets, it’s becoming harder to do the things necessary to help older people stay in their homes for as long as possible, admits Taylor.

She warns that federal funding for food programs may be slashed as Congress is forced to rein in the nation’s huge deficit. Food and gas price increases will hit older person’s where it hurts, in their pocket books, predicts Taylor, making it more difficult for them to purchase groceries.

Hopefully, House Speaker Gordon Fox and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, will get Taylor’s message at the conclusion of McPhillips’ fine investigative piece: “It’s up to us to picture the world we want to age in,” and to work to bring it about.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.