Federal budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration that affect the delivery of long-term services and supports and other programs that keep older adults connected “are really pennywise and pound foolish, because in the end they’re going to cause more hospitalizations, more nursing home admissions and poorer health outcomes,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said Thursday in a Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing. Collins is chairwoman of the committee.

LTSS programs, she said, help prevent older adults from being isolated and lonely. Isolation and loneliness were the focuses of the hearing.

“The fact is, the consequences of isolation and loneliness are severe: negative health outcomes, higher healthcare costs and even death,” Collins said, citing statistics that lonely seniors have a 45% greater risk of dying and a 59% greater risk of functional decline.

Seniors who lack companionship also have higher rates of heart disease, depression, anxiety and dementia, she added.

“Prolonged isolation is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Collins said. “I must say that was a statistic that really hit home to me.” She called for a commitment to end isolation and loneliness equal to the country’s commitment to reducing the smoking rate.

Thursday’s hearing was the first of a planned two-part series on isolation and loneliness in older adults. The second hearing is scheduled for May 10.

“We hope that this hearing, and the series of two hearings, will inform our engagement on other matters as well that may be coming before the Senate, like the president’s budget request, or potentially an infrastructure package,” said the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA). In addition to LTSS programs, Casey said, programs that enhance access to technology and broadband are important to maintaining connection for seniors, especially those who live in rural areas.

Hearing witness Lenard W. Kaye, D.S.W., Ph.D. director of the Center on Aging and a professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine, said that the importance of social networks “cannot be overstated.”

“Family, friends, neighbors and professional caregivers provide social support, social influence, create a buffer against stress, increase your access to resources and can even stimulate your immune system,” he said.

Co-housing, in which older adults live with younger ones, and the creation of opportunities for interaction are two possible solutions to social isolation, Kaye said.

“Dr. Kelley Strout at the University of Maine has developed a pilot program called GROW, which sets up garden beds at low-income congregate housing sites,” he said, citing one example. “Originally intended to increase the consumption of healthy foods, the program also increased social ties between residents who would not have otherwise interacted and formed friendships despite living within the same housing complex.”

W. Mark Clark, president and CEO of the Pima Council on Aging, in Arizona, called for the expansion of home- and community-based services to meet the growing need for them. “If we don’t meet the need,” he said, “many older Americans will lose their independence and health, resulting in higher costs for taxpayers in the form of increased Medicaid nursing home costs and avoidable Medicare expenditures.”

Editor’s note: Read coverage of the second hearing here.