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Everybody Deserves Connection!

Embracing community and staying connected as we age are key to health and well-being

By Terry Fulmer, PhD, RN, FAAN and The John A. Hartford Foundation
Three friends laughing together while on a road trip. Next Avenue
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It seems intuitive that being socially connected is a vital component of our everyday well-being. However, until very recently, social isolation has not been on the agenda of American health care. Evidence suggests that social connection is just as important as diet and exercise in an older adult's life, and remaining socially engaged can positively affect overall health and happiness. Embracing community and staying connected as we age is an important component to living a long, fulfilled life.

It's so important that the U.S. Surgeon General identified social connection as a public health priority. The effects of social connectedness are transformational because they contribute to a sense of belonging that can improve an individual's health and wellness. Social engagement can help prevent serious illnesses like stroke, heart disease, dementia and depression. Maintaining social interactions can help alleviate stress and anxiety, improve sleep and reduce the risk of suicide.

Loneliness and isolation have risen dramatically in the United States with one in four older adults feeling socially isolated. Loneliness and isolation contribute to obesity and physical inactivity. Cognitive decline can also occur when older adults are isolated from others. Here are four common factors that can lead to loneliness and isolation as we age:

  1. Physical limitations. As we age, our mobility may start to decline. Limited mobility can make leaving home a challenge, leading to withdrawal from social activities and gatherings. Serious illness and mental health conditions can also contribute to limited participation in social activities.
  2. Lack of relationships. As we get older, we experience losses like the death of our parents, friends, siblings, and spouses, which can lead to increased isolation. Our children and grandchildren grow up, and they often move away and get busy with their own lives and families. This can lead to a lack of local connections and deep family bonds. Many older adults live alone after their partners die and are unable to afford their housing. These stressors can cause older people to avoid socializing, become isolated, and can increase the risk of premature death.
  3. Location. Location. Location. No matter where you live, social isolation can be evident. Rural, suburban, and urban areas all have unique challenges. Rural areas often have limited access to transportation and internet connectivity, making sustained social connections difficult. Suburban areas can also present transportation challenges, and as children move out, new relationships can be difficult to establish. Most urban areas have transportation options, but older people may feel hesitant to travel alone. Most communities lack age-friendly infrastructure and have unsafe sidewalks and street crossings. Stairs and inadequate lighting are additional factors that create obstacles. 
  1. The digital divide. Rapid advances in technology can help solve the issue of isolation, however, older adults may need assistance with computers and smartphones. Not everyone has access to broadband internet, something the government must address.

Ways to counter social isolation

Knowing the risk factors for social isolation can better equip older adults with ways to establish satisfying social connections. Here are a few ways to increase connection as we age:

  1. Find a community. Finding a community of older adults that shares your interests can be a great source of social connectedness. Visit your local senior center or a library and you may be surprised at the activities they offer. Online groups are another excellent option for those who are comfortable with technology, have internet access, and want an easy way to meet people. Simply making plans to talk to someone each day can be beneficial in creating and keeping connections.
  2. Find an age-friendly care provider. Age-friendly health care providers can help recognize signs of social isolation using the 4Ms — What Matters, Mentation, Mobility and Medication — and offer tailored solutions to support increased social connection for older patients. Older adults can see if age-friendly care is provided in their community by visiting Because older adults use the health care system at higher rates than younger people, there is an opportunity for health care professionals to identify, prevent and mitigate the adverse health effects of social isolation and loneliness in older adults.
  3. Volunteer. Organizations that match your interest often welcome volunteers. These organizations can range from day care centers for children to local hospitals. The important thing is to find meaningful engagement that can benefit from your time and talent. AmeriCorps Seniors is a federal program like the Peace Corps that offers meaningful service experiences for older adults.
  4. Connect with your local Area Agency on Aging (AAA). AAAs are regional, non-profit organizations that exist to address the needs and concerns of older adults, from the physical to the social. AAAs can connect older adults to local programs that offer social activities and help improve access to transportation so they can get to and from activities. AAAs can help coordinate services like home-delivered meals, homemaker services and other supports to help older adults remain in their homes and do what matters most to them. 

Social isolation can be experienced at any age and is not inevitable just because someone grows older. Support from friends, family, health care providers and community organizations can help older adults tap into a variety of activities, technologies, resources and out-of-the-box solutions to combat social isolation and loneliness. Everybody deserves connection! Your well-being depends on it.


The John A. Hartford Foundation
By The John A. Hartford Foundation

The John A. Hartford Foundation is a private, nonpartisan, national philanthropy dedicated to improving the care of older adults. The leader in the field of aging and health, the Foundation has three priority areas: creating age-friendly health systems, supporting family caregivers, and improving serious illness and end-of-life care.

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