Fordham’s Henry C. Ravazzin Center on Aging and Intergenerational Studies celebrated 25 years this week, choosing to forgo a big celebration and instead host a forum focused on pressing issues facing older adults: isolation and loneliness.
Tilted “The Decade’s New Public Health Challenge: Alone, Lonely, Isolated,” the Nov. 9 discussion brought together experts from the academy, government, and private sector to examine the intergenerational problem that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The event was sponsored by the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS), which runs the center; Adelphi University; the New York City Department for the Aging; and the State Society on Aging of New York. Panelists hailed from the Veterans Administration, the Westchester Department of Senior Programming, Hunter College, Older Adults Technology Services, DORAT, and AARP.
“The global pandemic has certainly increased isolation and loneliness for people of all ages, but it really is older adults of our communities that are the most vulnerable,” said Debra McPhee, Ph.D., dean of GSS.
Prioritizing the Needs of Older Adults
In prerecorded remarks, United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand cited the morning subject’s timeliness, as well as its unfortunate timelessness for older adults.
“Older Americans were already feeling isolated before the coronavirus pandemic, then we asked [them]to stay home to limit their exposure to the coronavirus,” she said. “That meant spending more time alone with fewer visits, if any.”
She added that one in five deaths during the coronavirus pandemic in the state occurred in long-term care facilities and that residents of color were especially at risk.
“This pandemic has highlighted the need to prioritize new solutions and new tools to combat problems older Americans face in accessing care and maintaining social interaction,” she said. “No one should have to face their later years or their health struggles alone.”
Bob Blancato, a member of the board of directors at AARP, agreed.
“If I could wave my policy wand, I would like to see this new [presidential]administration declare social isolation and loneliness a public health emergency,” he said during his presentation.
Panels discussed ways to implement virtual programming at senior centers, how to integrate consumer technology, and how to expand established connections in the digital realm.
McPhee offered a bit of history on the Ravazzin Center. She noted that a former dean of the Graduate School of Social Service, Mary Ann Quaranta, Ph.D., established the center in 1995 with Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., who was president of Fordham at the time. Irene Gutheil, Ph.D., served as the center’s first endowed chair. Today, the center continues to advance best practices and policies in the care of older adults while maintaining an emphasis on social justice. In 2015, McPhee appointed Janna Heyman, Ph.D., to spearhead efforts to expand the center’s work by addressing issues across the lifespan.
Social Isolation vs. Loneliness
In her remarks, Heyman made a distinction between social isolation and loneliness.
“Isolation is more of an objective state and loneliness is more of a subjective feeling. They’re related experiences, but social isolation is often the lack of contact because an individual has a limited social network or lacking relationships,” she said. “Some people decide to be so socially isolated, and that’s okay. But loneliness is an emotion. People who are lonely perceive intimate relationships are not there, and they have a different quality of life because of that.”
Manoj Paradasani, Ph.D., former assistant dean at GSS, now dean of Adelphi University School of Social Work, said that location doesn’t matter when it comes to social isolation.
“People think of seniors as being isolated in rural areas, but you can live in an apartment building with 2,000 people and still be socially isolated. It’s not issues of rural versus urban versus suburban,” he said.
Technology as a Means of Connection
Paradasani said that the pandemic has increased use of telehealth services by seniors, something he said he would like to see continue into the future. He said before quarantine, seniors interacted at senior centers, libraries, and intergenerational community centers. Many of the services they found at those locations had to be moved online.
“The one light that I saw through this pandemic was the use of technology and how we could integrate it into services with adults. It was panic-driven for sure, but it has shown us that if tech is effectively used we can engage older adults,” he said.
He noted that as seniors continue to age they no may longer be able to access services in a physical space because of mobility issues, putting them at higher risk of social isolation and loneliness.
“When we come back to the new normal, this is an opportunity where we need to think of programs and services that are not just available to people on-site, but for people who can connect from home,” he said.
Not Just Mental Health Issues
Heyman said it’s important to note that social isolation and loneliness are not just mental health issues. Study after study has shown that social isolation can increase the risk of premature mortality.
“Loneliness can also increase the risk of death … and can have a 68% increase in hospitalization,” she said. “This is an important aspect we need to be aware of, and it has been complicated by COVID-19.”
Heyman said that almost 25% of older adults, age 65 and older, are considered socially isolated and 43% of those age 60 and older are lonely. She reiterated Pardasani’s point that tech can play an important role, citing a 2020 AARP study that said 81% of 50-to-69 year-olds have access to smartphones and computers. Though for the 70-plus cohort, that usage drops to 62%.
Intergenerational Help is Key
Heyman said that the intergenerational approach is vital. She noted that Fordham students affiliated with the Ravazzin Center and GSS pick up the phone to call older adults who do not have the technology.
“They’re making the connection. They’re on the front lines being there for the older adults,” she said. “One student said an older adult said to her, ‘Will you call me back?’ Of course, she said, ‘Yes, I’ll be there. I’m going to be right there and reach out to you again in a couple of days just to see how you’re doing.’ Well, that can make a world of difference.”
Conversations across all generations were important before the pandemic, and they will be critical over the next few months and far into the future, she said.
“The intergenerational aspect of children and adults and older adults coming together, and it doesn’t always have to be in a place—it could be on a phone, it could be on Zoom—as long as that intergenerational aspect can bring people together to communicate with each other it will help everyone.”