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Op-Ed on Loneliness by JCHE President Amy Schectman

Two recent articles in the Boston Globe point to the devastating effects of loneliness.

Amy Schectman

Dear Friend: 

Two recent articles in the Boston Globe point to the devastating effects of loneliness. In the Globe January 16 interview with former US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, he summed it up well: “...the data is telling us that loneliness kills,” with research pointing to llife-shortening effects akin to smoking and obesity. A January 17th Globe article reported on the appointment in the UK of a Minister for Loneliness to respond to a problem reaching epidemic proportions there.

It is no surprise that older adults are affected disproportionately by loneliness. That’s in large part because, in our society, we place a very high value on independence. Unfortunately, this often translates into people believing that “aging in place” (i.e., remaining in one’s private home as long as possible) is a way to maintain that independence. In fact, all the evidence shows that it’s the exact opposite. Living in a supportive community with opportunities for meaningful interactions with others is what maintains independence. Aging in place, for far too many older adults, translates into loneliness.

As we age, our ability to go places and mingle with others—especially in the dead of winter in New England—becomes limited. Yet the aging in place ideal, coupled with a broad societal shift away from multi-generational shared living spaces, has left many older adults without life-enriching regular companionship.

So while “loneliness kills,” we know that community revives. Community is the antidote to the bitter loneliness that often accompanies an unsupported aging process. By building communities where seniors can live independently and participate in engaging programs that promote companionship, wellness, and intellectual stimulation, JCHE’s model mitigates the serious health risks linked to loneliness.

With the number of Americans age 65 and older projected to more than double to over 98 million by 2060, we need to focus on building more communities like ours -- where older adults can live independently and connected, taking advantage of engaging programs that promote companionship, wellness, and intellectual stimulation. And when you need a hand with the activities of daily living to maintain that independence, there are support services so one’s focus can remain on the opportunities for lifelong learning and social engagement.

All people, regardless of income or assets, should have access to the benefits of “aging in community.”  Unfortunately, the availability of affordable, supportive housing options are too few for older Americans, especially in Massachusetts where 61% of seniors do not have enough income to cover necessities.

It’s not likely we’ll appoint a US Minister for Loneliness any time soon. And as long as our nation sees the future of aging as being alone in one’s home, we will continue to see loneliness kill – through increased risk for strokes and heart attacks, high blood pressure, and memory loss.

The way forward is clear: The only effective response to these trends is to create more affordable, supportive housing and to promote “aging in community” as a first choice.

We hope you will join us in this mission.

Amy Schectman

President and CEO