Unlike other pressing public health issues that are studied and reported on extensively, the problem of social isolation among the elderly is virtually invisible. The very nature of the problem – elderly individuals isolating in their homes – makes it difficult to see, study, and fix. It doesn’t garner the same amount of research as other social issues or have well-funded programs to help remedy the problem. Through their grant programs, the newly formed Sarah Ralston Foundation, which evolved from the centuries-old Sarah Ralston House, seeks to address social isolation, among other issues that affect the aging population in Philadelphia.
Social isolation is defined as spending most of your time alone, having little or no contact with friends or family. Often not by choice, there are a variety of reasons why isolation among our elderly population has become such an urgent problem. “It can be the result of physical or mental health issues, poor mobility, or other impairments,” said Lynette Killen, Executive Director of The Sarah Ralston. “In addition to health issues, other circumstances such as financial setbacks, embarrassment of the state of their home, or an inability to keep up their hygiene can also limit social interaction,” she said. And, of course, the loss of a spouse or members of a peer group can lead to reduced human contact and more time spent alone.
Whatever the reason, the negative impact of living this way has been well documented. Mental health professionals and the medical community caution that there are many emotional and physical risks associated with isolating. Limited stimulation from the outside world can result in depression, confusion, a decline in general mental health, worsening of pre-existing conditions, a higher risk of falling, dehydration, and hunger. “Individuals who isolate are also more likely to ignore symptoms that need to be addressed by a healthcare provider,” said Neville Strumpf, retired professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania. Strumpf’s background is in geriatrics. She also serves as the Board President of The Sarah Ralston Foundation. “There are no easy answers. It’s a complex problem,” she said.
There are programs that try to identify isolated individuals and put them in touch with organizations and opportunities that offer much needed companionship. The biggest challenge is uncovering and bringing the issue to someone’s attention. “They don’t self-identify, so getting such a person onto the radar screen of organizations that are trying to help is difficult. Raising the bar of awareness is the crucial first step,” Strumpf said. “Social isolation doesn’t get the kind of priority that, say, food programs get. We can deliver a meal, but if the recipient is eating alone, we’ve missed an important opportunity to positively impact their well-being.”
One solution is to create networks that bring people together. Penn’s Village, a community-based membership organization in central Philadelphia, is one example. They help older adults to live independently in their homes. The mission statement on their website explains how this is achieved: “…by providing varying services and programs that increase social engagement through a network of volunteers.”
Jane Eleey is the Executive Director of Penn’s Village. She’s self-described as being in her 70’s and intensely committed to this issue. “People they know move or pass away, or there may be health issues that make it hard to engage with the surrounding community. Like with Covid, there may be new precautions in place, or perhaps anxiety that wasn’t there before. Their family may be far away, and travel may be difficult or impossible,” she said.
Programs like those offered at Penn’s Village are designed specifically to deal with the rising issue of social isolation. Volunteer companions spend quality time with the members who can request a variety of services from volunteers such as taking them for walks, to the doctor or on trips to the grocery store, or just sitting, talking and enjoying each other’s company.
The system also helps the members connect with each other. Jane Eleey noted, “A member whose mobility is compromised reached out to us to arrange for additional companionship. We were able to connect him with another member, who’s new. She’s a bit quiet and reserved, but she needed help with technology, and he was able to advise. The two members now speak three times per week and receive great enjoyment and benefits from the relationship.”
“Addressing social isolation is a focus area of the Sarah Ralston Foundation,” said Killen. “Our hope is to support organizations that develop innovative programs to mitigate the problem.” Information about The Sarah Ralston Foundation and the grants they provide can be found on their website at www.sarahralstonfoundation.org.