Lawmakers Advance Bill to Examine, Address ‘Loneliness Epidemic’

Lilo H. Stainton | November 18, 2019 | Health Care
Social isolation among elderly adds about $6.7 billion to nation’s annual health care spending; those with disabilities, veterans are also at risk
Credit: Twenty20
State officials will be required to study extent of social isolation among senior citizens and other at-risk groups.

State lawmakers from both parties appear eager to learn more about how loneliness impacts vulnerable New Jerseyans and explore ways to help these residents avoid some of the physical and psychological problems that social isolation can cause.

The Senate health committee unanimously approved a bill Thursday that requires state officials to study how common and widespread social isolation is among senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, veterans and other at-risk groups, and recommend actions to help them become more connected and engaged with family, friends or their community. The measure cleared the Assembly with unanimous support in June and has been referred to the Senate budget committee; it would also need a full Senate vote before the governor could sign it into law.

The legislation reflects a growing awareness — in the United States and abroad — regarding the damaging effects loneliness can have on an individual’s physical and mental health, a problem that can become worse during holiday seasons. Social isolation takes a greater toll than smoking 15 cigarettes daily, raising the risk of heart disease and other conditions and death itself, according to studies cited by elder-advocates AARP and government agencies.

“There is growing evidence of the psychological and physical effects of social isolation, especially for vulnerable populations,” said state Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union), a lead sponsor of the Senate version. “Being cut off from interactions with other people and removed from the social activities of groups and organizations can have a damaging impact on the health and wellbeing of a growing number of people.”

Nationwide, about 28% of elderly adults — some 13.8 million Americans — live alone, although not all may be isolated socially, according to research the National Institute on Aging published this spring. But those who do battle loneliness are at greater risk for anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive deterioration, among other health concerns.

According to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, what it calls the “loneliness epidemic” among elderly adults adds an estimated $6.7 billion to the nation’s health care spending annually. In all, more than four in 10 seniors reported feeling lonely on a regular basis, the agency noted, and this group faced a 45% higher mortality risk.

Finding remedies

The issue is also a priority for AARP, which published a report on social isolation last year that puts the rate at closer to one in three Americans over age 45; those who are poor, identify as LGBTQ, or are unpaid caregivers are more vulnerable to the dangers of loneliness. The research found that maintaining robust social networks and regular contact with friends and family — as well as more sleep, sex and hobby time — were most effective in combating isolation.

“This is a public health concern that needs greater understanding,” said state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex). “There are a variety of social trends that appear to be contributing to this issue. This task force will help determine the causes and identify remedies that can be taken to address the problem so we can help these vulnerable groups before it becomes worse.”

New Jersey’s proposal, which Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Hunterdon) first introduced in May, is designed to include not just senior citizens, but also other populations likely to suffer from higher rates of social isolation. Lawmakers amended the bill to specify that it applies to individuals with disabilities “with this term interpreted expansively,” those with mental illness, active duty military members and veterans, and “other vulnerable populations” as deemed appropriate by state officials.

Specifically, the bill (S-3692), calls for an 11-member task force to be established within the Department of Human Services to solicit input on the topic from advocacy organizations and officials who work with these vulnerable citizens, as well as individuals and their family members. The board would need to review data and written reports, identify common risk factors and assess what is being done to address these issues in New Jersey and elsewhere.

In its report to the governor and lawmakers, the task force is required to explain the nature, frequency and overall impact of social isolation on these vulnerable groups; detail the existing responses; and recommend ways the Garden State can work to encourage greater community interaction for lonely residents and note the resources required.

In addition to the DHS commissioner and a representative of the state Department of Health, the panel — the New Jersey Task Force to Prevent Loneliness and Social Isolation — would include nine public members representing organizations working with the at-risk groups. The governor, Assembly speaker and Senate president would each appoint three of these public members.