Lonely senior

Improved direct care worker training and technology could help relieve social isolation and loneliness among older adults, according to a report released Thursday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and funded by the AARP Foundation.

That’s important, according to the authors, in part because older adults who experience social isolation or loneliness may face higher risks of mortality, heart disease and depression.

“Loneliness and social isolation aren’t just social issues; they can also affect a person’s physical and mental health, and the fabric of communities,” said Dan Blazer, M.D., Ph.D., the J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus and professor of community and family medicine at Duke University, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Addressing social isolation and loneliness is often the entry point for meeting seniors’ other social needs — like food, housing and transportation.”

One recommendation from the report authors is that schools of health professions and training programs for direct care workers incorporate social isolation and loneliness in their curricula. Health professionals need to learn core content in areas such as the health effects of social isolation and loneliness, assessment strategies and referral options and processes, they said.

The authors also recommend that technology developers properly assess and test new innovations, considering privacy, autonomy and the rural-urban digital divide.

Technologies that are designed to help older adults — such as smart home sensors, robots and handheld devices — instead might exacerbate loneliness and social isolation if they are not easy to use or attempt to substitute for human contact, they said. Moreover, the research found that 67% of the current assistive technologies in dementia care were designed without considering their ethical implications.

See the report, “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults,” for more information and additional recommendations. A PDF is available to download at no charge.