Last week the AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) sponsored a Solutions Forum on Capitol Hill (view recording HERE) that put the spotlight on groundbreaking research showing how much social isolation—lack of meaningful contacts with others—costs the Medicare program.
In two separate panels, participants in the packed room heard from experts who discussed the global problem of social isolation—or lack of meaningful contacts with others—among older adults. Susan Reinhard, Senior Vice President at AARP kicked off the event with a compelling video that put a human face on the issue. The video illustrates the negative effects of not interacting with anyone for just one week.
Issue expert Lynda Flowers, Senior Policy Advisor with PPI, highlighted social isolation as the new silent killer—a major risk factor for a host of conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and early onset dementia. Most notably, however, Flowers broke some big news from PPI’s recent study: social isolation costs the Medicare program $6.7 billion in additional spending every year.
AARP Foundation President, Lisa Marsh Ryerson underscored the negative impacts that isolation has on health—likening it to smoking 15 cigarettes a day—and the importance of identifying evidence-based solutions to address the problem. Notably, Ryerson drew attention to Connect2Affect, a multi-stakeholder collaboration with the AARP Foundation. Connect2Affect is a web-based resource that features tools to help people evaluate their risk for isolation, reach out to others who may be feeling lonely and disconnected, and find practical ways to reconnect to the community.
Other important takeaways that stand to change the way we look at and address social isolation:
Global perspective. Lina Walker—Vice President for Health Security at AARP, opened up the second panel by underscoring the global nature of the issue and highlighting the importance of collaborations and shared learning among national and international stakeholders. Janet Morrison, CEO of Independent Age and Chair of the Campaign to End Loneliness in the UK, discussed promising strategies being used in the UK to raise awareness of loneliness among older adults. Janet also highlighted social isolation as it relates to family caregiving.
Saving Medicare dollars. Tricia Neuman, a leading Medicare expert with the Kaiser Family Foundation, discussed the importance of identifying effective interventions. She said that such successes would enable Medicare to improve people’s health while at the same time save billions in Medicare spending.
Screening tool needed. Jonathan Shaw, a co-author of the PPI study from Stanford University and family practitioner at a California community health clinic, called for the development of a screening tool for social isolation that clinicians and lay people can easily use.
Medicare Advantage plan working on the issue. Offering the perspective of a private Medicare plan, Humana representative Sara Stevenson stressed the importance of identifying plan members who are socially isolated. She also revealed that Humana is now in the process of trying to identify solutions to alleviate isolation among its plan members.
An important public health concern. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a leading researcher in the field from Brigham Young University, pointed out the importance of raising awareness of social isolation as an important public health concern. According to Holt-Lunstad, social isolation meets criteria established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be considered a public health issue.
AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Public Policy Office, Debra Whitman, closed the event with a strong call to action: get involved and elevate the issue, she urged. Lives depend on it. To be sure, the issue’s visibility got a boost from the event. The Forum was live streaming around the world and the event hashtag #socialisolation was trending #2 in the Washington, D.C. area. All in all, a great success!
View Loneliness Project video and AARP Social Isolation study, infographic, and event recording.
Susan Reinhard is a senior vice president at AARP, directing its Public Policy Institute, the focal point for AARP’s public policy research and analysis. She also serves as the chief strategist for the Center to Champion Nursing in America, a resource center to ensure the nation has the nurses it needs.
Lina Walker is vice president at the AARP Public Policy Institute, working on health care issues.
Elizabeth “Izzy” Barnett, 80, is a full-time caregiver for her husband, Bob, who has dementia. They have no children or family to help and Izzy has lost contact with friends because she is busy taking care of Bob. Izzy’s is not alone in this situation. Millions of older adults are socially isolated—in other words, they lack meaningful relationships with family and friends. Life circumstances—losing a spouse, friends, and loved ones, or retirement—put older adults at increased risk for isolation.
New AARP Public Policy Institute Report Links Social Isolation to Increased Medicare Spending
While we’ve known for a long time that isolation is associated with poorer health, no one had examined whether there is a link between social isolation and Medicare spending. Now, a new report from the AARP Public Policy Institute finds that an estimated 14 percent of older adults enrolled in Traditional Medicare (or 4 million people) are socially isolated, costing the federal government almost $7 billion in additional spending every year. And this number would be much larger if you add in people enrolled in private Medicare plans (Medicare Advantage).
We’re not sure what causes the link between social isolation and greater Medicare spending, but one possibility could be that socially isolated individuals do not have the support they need to stay healthy in their homes and communities, and instead rely on more costly hospital or skilled nursing facility care. What’s more, people who are socially isolated may be sicker before finally going to see a health care provider, driving up the cost of care.
A Start to Fixing the Problem
Social isolation is increasingly being recognized as a significant health and public health issue. Despite this, clinicians do not have a way to reliably and efficiently screen socially isolated individuals. Nor do we have public health surveillance strategies to help us understand the problem at a population level. What’s more, even if we could effectively screen individuals and collect good population-based data, we really don’t know what works in terms of alleviating isolation. Here are some strategies that federal, state, and local governments and the private sector can take to begin to address the problem:
- Fund the development of a reliable and efficient tool to screen patients for isolation;
- Establish public/private partnerships to identify and test interventions that can alleviate isolation; and,
- Recognize social isolation as an important social determinant of health as well as a critical public health problem that should be addressed through the investment of federal, state, and local government resources.
The Public Policy Institute’s report puts numbers to the reality of Izzy’s story, as well as that of millions of other older adults. Social isolation can be a hidden problem, but new evidence of the cost should encourage greater attention to the issue and support for solutions to improve the lives of older Americans.
Lynda Flowers is a Senior Strategic Policy Adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute, specializing in Medicaid issues, health disparities and public health.
Claire Noel-Miller is a Senior Strategic Policy Adviser for the AARP Public Policy Institute, where she provides expertise in quantitative research methods applied to a variety of health policy issues related to older adults.
It’s clear that a majority of people want to remain independent as they age and now technology can help them do so. As a Northern Virginia resident and an employee of AARP, I was drawn to a recent local event titled “Can Technology Help Older Arlingtonians Age Independently?”
The event was the fourth installment of Arlington County’s Digital Destiny campaign which seeks to explore the impact of the Digital Revolution on defined aspects of life for the county and its residents.
This session featured Arlington county employees, local residents and aging experts discussing tech trends likely to have the greatest impact on older Americans.
- Amy Doherty, Chief Information Officer and AARP
- Brittany Weinberg, Director of Community Engagement,Aging2.0
Doherty discussed three emerging trends and how they can apply to aging independently:
- Leveraging virtual reality to make the aging experience real to people of all ages.
- Investigating ways that robotics can aid in caregiving and social isolation.
- How artificial intelligence could strengthen programs like the Fraud Watch Network that provide citizens with information on how to avoid scams.
Brittany Weinberg, the Director of Community Engagement, Aging2.0. explained how people-centered-design, including voice recognition and gesture controls, is improving the technology experience for people of a variety of ages and is helping to solve issues related to caregiving and social isolation. She also noted that the prevalence of sensors within the home helps enable people to age independently and live in their homes for as long as possible.
After each speaker presented, the audience was charged to brainstorm ways they thought technology could make their lives easier.
The ideas presented included:
- Programs that enable schools to give back to the 50+ community by allowing children to tutor older adults
- Programs like Cyber Seniors and AARP TEK were mentioned as existing resources to help educate adults about technology.
- Libraries were mentioned as good resources and as go-to sites for downloading digital books, taking classes and accessing educational videos via Lynda.
- The group also encouraged tech companies to design for all ages and accessibility