Loneliness and Social Isolation in Seniors and Physical Health Impacts

During the holiday season, many look forward to reflecting and celebrating the end of the year with family and friends. However, it’s not a happy time for everyone. In fact, it can be quite the opposite for many seniors who find themselves alone and not surrounded by their loved ones. The pandemic has only exacerbated it.

A recent SilverSneakers Pulse survey, indicated 35% of SilverSneakers members report not being able to see family and friends as the biggest disruption from the pandemic. While this is a decrease from earlier surveys, this percentage spiked when the Delta variant emerged and could increase again with the winter months and new variants such as Omicron emerging. Loneliness and social isolation among seniors are public health challenges we must address.

I recently moderated a panel at the AHIP Consumer and Digital Health Summit with Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, Martin B. Hickman Distinguished Scholar, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, and scientific chair for the Foundation for Social Connection, and Andrew Dowling, Founder & CEO, Stitch, the world’s largest social community helping older adults create enriching social connections.

Dr. Holt-Lunstad framed up the issue of social isolation and loneliness during the pandemic perfectly. She said that people often assume that “we’re all in the same boat,” but with the pandemic, it is the same storm, but many different boats. Some people have better resources or networks to weather the storm – bigger, stronger boats – while others, such as seniors living alone without family close by, may be just trying to stay afloat. Our goal must be to help each person to build a better boat.

Social isolation and loneliness are linked to serious physical health concerns and can increase the risk for depression, anxiety, other chronic illnesses, and even premature death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study  conducted by Dr. Holt-Lundstad and others at Brigham Young University showed that social isolation increased the risk of mortality by 29% and loneliness increased it by 26%.

As demographics continue to shift in the United States—the U.S. Census Bureau reports all Baby Boomers will have crossed the 65+ threshold by 2030—the toll of loneliness and isolation on our nation’s seniors will present even greater challenge to our health system.

Benefits Already Apparent

Tivity Health has been examining social isolation and loneliness among SilverSneakers members and exploring ways to support them in making social connections.  SilverSneakers is a community fitness program designed for seniors that offers in person and virtual classes customized for every fitness level, as well as social engagement and mental enrichment opportunities. For almost 30 years, our members have enjoyed the social benefits of group exercise, but we want to do more.

Through a recent independent analysis, the differences in health outcomes among Medicare beneficiaries and those who are enrolled in the SilverSneakers program were observed. Key findings revealed Medicare beneficiaries who participated in the SilverSneakers senior fitness program had lower healthcare utilization after joining, compared to non-participants. Additionally, the hospitalization rates decreased by 21.3% and there were 7.6 fewer emergency department visits compared to non-participants.

Still, Tivity Health sees more opportunity to provide for seniors’ overall wellbeing while also benefiting their physical health.

What’s next?

Studies have shown older adults are becoming more tech savvy and they are more willing to engage virtually. During the pandemic, Tivity Health quickly pivoted to offer virtual, live SilverSneakers classes via Zoom. To date, there have been more than 3.5 million visits to these classes. We’ve also hosted workshops in partnership with Apple to help seniors become more comfortable with technology, as well as workshops on nutrition and healthy living. We are expanding our virtual content beyond fitness to support the physical, mental and social needs of our members.

In 2022, SilverSneakers will partner with Stitch  as part of this effort. Stitch supports the the social health of its members across three continents by helping them build new social connections and providing them with a greater sense of purpose.

Stitch has more than 150,000 members worldwide. In 2022, SilverSneakers members in participating health plans will have the opportunity to connect with other older adults on a social platform especially designed for them. Stitch’s online community centers around a variety of interests, from book clubs to crafting, and even offers some in-person activities. During our AHIP panel, Dowling said that like SilverSneakers, Stitch moved to virtual connection opportunities during the pandemic and now offers a hybrid approach, which enables members to not only connect with people in their community, but all over the world.

Beginning in January, SilverSneakers members in participating health plans will also have access to GetSetUp, a virtual learning platform designed specifically to provide mental enrichment activities for seniors. The program offers a wide range of classes, through a senior-specific video platform optimized for ease of activation, user engagement and social connection. Studies show  that engaging in learning opportunities supports cognitive health and overall well-being.

We all need social engagement and mental enrichment to thrive and live healthy lives, and the need is even more critical to seniors who may already face health concerns or societal factors that limit their engagement. While there is no single solution, encouraging physical activity, mental enrichment and social connections through technology are ways in which we can begin to enhance well-being and cognitive function among seniors.

Click here to find out more about Tivity Health’s new partnership with Stitch