Looking to Get to Grips with Loneliness Among NJ’s Elderly, Others at Risk

Lilo H. Stainton | May 31, 2019 | Health Care
Social isolation is a public health concern, says Assemblyman; a new task force would assess its reach in New Jersey and recommend ways to alleviate it

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Elderly & Alone
Amid growing concern worldwide about the impact of loneliness on the elderly, Garden State lawmakers want to learn how social isolation affects vulnerable New Jerseyans and what can be done to keep them more active and engaged.

A handful of Democratic legislators introduced a bill earlier this month to create a task force to assess the nature and frequency of social isolation among seniors, and among individuals with disabilities or mental illness, veterans, and other at-risk groups. According to a study published in December, three out of four Americans experience some degree of loneliness, which contributes to poor health.

The proposal — unanimously approved by an Assembly committee last week — calls for the panel, with help from the state departments of Health and of Human Services, to analyze the resources available for addressing social isolation, the level of existing services, and solutions employed elsewhere. It would report its findings, along with recommendations, to the governor, state lawmakers and the public every two years.

“Social isolation is not just a social issue, but a public health concern. For elderly and other vulnerable and special populations, isolation can negatively impact health outcomes and lead to premature death,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Hunterdon), the lead sponsor. “With the research and evidence discovered as a result, we can begin to effectively address social isolation.”

It’s ‘all around us’

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Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker
Zwicker said he has encountered this phenomenon in both his personal and professional life. He recently helped move his mother to assisted living in Bergen County that he said is “a wonderful facility, but loneliness is everywhere.” And his work with vets has shown him that many of them suffer from isolation, which can lead to serious depression and suicidal thoughts or attempts, he added.

“So those two combined were the motivation for” the legislation, said Zwicker, who is also troubled by the social isolation he sees among teens. He added, “It seems like loneliness is all around us.”

Research published in April by the National Institute on Aging found about 28 percent of elderly adults — some 13.8 million nationwide — live alone, although many are not socially isolated or lonely. But those who are, face higher risks of elevated blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and even death, the NIA noted.

“Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases,” said NIA researcher Steve Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles, by accelerating the development of heart disease, cancer growth, and inflammations in the brain that can lead to Alzheimer’s. “Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body,” he said.

Social isolation has become a priority for the AARP, according to Evelyn Liebman, advocacy director in New Jersey for the organization. A national report the AARP Foundation released last year found that one in three Americans over age 45 are lonely, or one in two of those living in poverty. And, as the baby-boom generation ages, more people are likely to fall into this at-risk category.

Physical inactivity, limited community engagement

Social isolation and loneliness also emerge in conjunction with other factors, experts note, including physical inactivity and limited community engagement. The UnitedHealth Foundation’s Senior Report ranked New Jersey 21st nationwide for the health of its elderly residents, thanks in part to low smoking rates and high-quality healthcare options. But the state was 42nd for limited physical activity among seniors and 45th for low levels of volunteerism, the report found.

The issue is also on the radar for New Jersey’s DHS; through its Division of Aging Services it oversees state programs for the elderly, many of which can help ward off social isolation and loneliness. Among other supports, the state can help vulnerable seniors coordinate medical care and social services, help them engage in community activities, obtain home-based care, and find supportive group housing. It also supports day programs for individuals with Alzheimer’s and meal delivery services for seniors.

“Human Services believes in the vital importance of helping older adults avoid isolation and loneliness, which is why it offers numerous programs to ensure older adults get the assistance and interaction they need to live as independently as possible in the community,” said department spokesman Tom Hester Jr.

“The Department is always looking to improve and expand these important services, and is of course always interested in further discussion on how best to do so,” he added.

In the United Kingdom, the government launched a nationwide program to address loneliness by helping to connect people with existing services in their communities. Prime Minister Theresa May called loneliness one of the greatest public health challenges of our time in announcing the program last fall.

Linking people with established programs

That approach — a public initiative to link people in need with established programs — appealed to Zwicker. His legislation offers a process to better understand the problem in the Garden State, as opposed to a solution, however. “It starts with isolation, but it’s so much bigger than that,” he said, conceding that he recognized the problem, but doesn’t have all the answers.

The bill (A-5314) — which was significantly amended in the Assembly Health and Senior Services committee last week — calls for an 11-member task force, including representatives of DHS and the health department, to solicit input from social service organizations, individuals at risk for social isolation, and county and local offices who work with elders and other vulnerable populations. It could receive public funding for its work and apply for grants or other support.

Under the proposal, the panel would then assess the level of loneliness among these specific groups; identify common risk factors; analyze data and research on the subject, and solutions in other jurisdictions; and review the work already being done by the state, local governments and their partners. Their findings would be reported to state officials and the public every two years, along with proposed solutions specific to New Jersey.

The measure specifically calls for the group to study senior citizens, individuals with disabilities or mental illness, veterans and other groups that the panel decides are vulnerable to this concern. Recommendations would need to include how to relieve isolation among impacted groups, but also how to reduce the likelihood of this spreading.

“We also need to understand the triggers that contribute to such isolation,” said Assemblyman Mathew Milam (D-Atlantic), another sponsor.

In addition to the two state health officials, the panel — the New Jersey Task Force to Prevent Loneliness and Social Isolation — would include nine public members representing organizations working in this field. The governor, Assembly Speaker and Senate President would each appoint three people to the group. The law would take effect immediately and give the task force a month to get started after its members were in place.