Sam Shumway from AARP Wyoming shares how social isolation impacts older individuals

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (WYOMING NEWS NOW) -- The Wyoming Suicide Prevention Symposium was on September 5, 2019, at the Little America Hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The conference was targeted toward providers, therapists, physicians, military professionals, health educators, and public health professionals. Sam Shumway from AARP Wyoming talks about how social isolation impacts older individuals and the costs resulting to Medicare and the larger healthcare system.

• Social isolation occurs when a person has few or no social connections
• Older adults are at risk for social isolation due to changes in their social networks
• Social isolation or loneliness has strong negative effects on health, it has been found to be as bad for one’s health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day
• Social relationships affect physical, mental, and health behaviors
• Having social connections reduces the risk of early death by 50 percent
• Social Isolation in rural areas such as Wyoming is difficult to prevent because of the vastness of the state, if an individual lives to far outside of a town, aging centers will not go to them

Studies have shown that socially isolated older adults are at greater risk for poor health and death than their well-connected counterparts. A lack of social contacts among older adults is associated with an estimated $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually.

The increase in cost is because socially isolated older adults are more likely to use skilled nursing facility care and when inpatient services are used, they tend to stay longer. The thought behind this is that the patient has no one at home to care for them, or they have no one in their community to help them, so they must stay longer to heal. This raises issues for Medicare and public health officials.

AARP is helping to fight social isolation throughout Wyoming with programs such as Movies for Grownups and Senior High Tech. Movies for Grownups allows for a night out in a social setting to enjoy a free movie and interact with fellow movie-goers. Senior High Tech brings high school students and seniors together to teach the basics of technology. This allows for older adults to be able to contact loved ones that are far away through technology and social media.

A survey conducted on adults between the ages of 50 and 80, through University of Michigan on Healthy Aging, showed that many adults struggle with isolation and feelings of loneliness. 1 in 3 adults say they lack regular companionship, and 1 in 4 say they feel isolated from other people at least some of the time.

Older adults who reported being socially active every day or several times a week were less likely to report a lack of companionship or feeling isolated. Respondents who said they ate healthy diets, exercised, got enough sleep, or didn’t use tobacco also fared better than their peers with less healthy habits.

It would seem that social isolation and a lack of companionship would go hand in hand but that is not the case for all. 37 percent of those who felt a lack of companionship did not feel isolated, while 20 percent of those who felt isolated did not feel a lack of companionship.