Loneliness & Aging

Loneliness & Aging

It is estimated that 30-40 percent of older adults are lonely; however, a lack of consistency in the definition of loneliness and the way it is measured means this percentage could be much higher. Research shows that loneliness is linked with several serious chronic health conditions as well as with shortened life expectancies. Moreover, the prevalence of loneliness has doubled since the 1980s, making it a topic of growing concern for public health practitioners.

“Social isolation is the biggest contributor to loneliness, and older adults are at a heightened risk for this,” says Dr. Benjamin Shaw, Professor and Associate Dean for Research at the School of Public Health. “They may experience health problems that impact their access to others, family members and friends might move away or pass away, and they may have less energy to devote to social networks, meaning that their peripheral relationships could be reduced in comparison to their younger years— increasing their risk for isolation.”

Dr. Shaw and his colleague Dr. Mary Gallant have vast experience researching how social support and social relationships influence chronic illness management and broader health outcomes over the life course— and how these relationships and their health impacts may change as people age.

“It’s important to understand how social networks contribute to health outcomes,” notes Dr. Gallant, Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. “This way, we can create meaningful intervention programs that enhance social connections and ultimately increase quality of life and improve health.”

Currently, Drs. Shaw and Gallant are working to understand how home-delivered meal programs can be enhanced to reduce loneliness among the recipients. Studies show that recipients of home-delivered meals experience less loneliness than their counterparts who do not receive delivered meals, even though they are at high risk for loneliness due to social isolation. Working with delivery programs in the Adirondack region of Upstate New York and four county Offices for the Aging, the team will analyze what practices are working best, while also identifying other ways that meal delivery programs could reduce loneliness.

“In addition to training delivery workers to understand and address social isolation and loneliness, meal delivery programs pose a unique opportunity for us for a few reasons,” says Dr. Shaw. “The service already exists for a purpose— satisfying the nutritional needs of vulnerable older adults. We simply want to optimize the social benefits of these programs. Most people are accustomed to mealtimes being not just a nutritional experience, but also a social and emotional one. For this reason, eating alone may trigger loneliness, but we think that we can reduce this by training delivery staff, and through the implementation of even more innovative practices that aim to create a sense of ‘togetherness’ at mealtime in non-traditional ways.” 

The project will also examine the effectiveness of connecting recipients of meals to each other to reduce loneliness, particularly in rural areas. Possibilities include technology to enable recipients to virtually share meals and community newsletters delivered alongside the food. 

“This project isn’t solely focused on reducing loneliness among our older adult populations, although that is our main goal,” says Dr. Gallant. “It’s about creating community that really makes a difference.”