BANGOR, Maine — A Mainer is urging D.C. lawmakers to support programs that help seniors stay social in order to stem the far-reaching effects of loneliness and isolation.
Lenard Kaye, director of the University of Maine’s Center on Aging, will be one of four experts testifying Thursday before the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging. The hearing starts at 9:45 a.m. and will be broadcast online at www.aging.senate.gov/hearings.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who chairs the committee, sought out Kaye’s expertise on the issue and asked that he travel to Washington to address the committee.
“We’ve never been a more isolated society than we are now,” Kaye said during an interview Tuesday. “It used to be we had extended families living under the same roof or at least in the same neighborhood or community.”
Now, more people are leaving rural places like Maine for urban centers, and some are leaving older relatives behind.
The U.S. Census reports that 29 percent of people over the age of 65 live alone, with more than 50 percent of women over the age of 75 living alone. Other studies report that one in five older adults are isolated.
Studies indicate that loneliness can be hazardous to a person’s health. People who report having isolated lifestyles have higher rates of disability and death, mental health issues, and lack access to needed services such as healthcare. Studies have even indicated that lonely people have more severe cold symptoms.
Widows, widowers and seniors without close family nearby aren’t the only older people who can struggle with isolation. Even couples can feel the effects, because they experience loss of loved ones and friends regularly, Kaye said.
Seniors with limited contact with others also are more susceptible to scammers, who target them by pretending to be interested and engaged, but ultimately take advantage and turn them into victims.
Kaye plans to urge lawmakers to support community programs that help seniors stay social and connected to their neighbors.
Among them, he cited the UMaine Center for Aging’s Senior Companion Program, which has volunteers spend time with seniors who live alone. During companion visits, the volunteer and senior walk together, read books, or just chat about life in general.
Also, some police departments call or visit homebound, isolated seniors to make sure they’re safe. And Kaye said postal workers in Augusta are even trained to ask questions of homebound seniors to ensure their well being.
Another example of a support program is Meals on Wheels, which could face deep cuts under President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget.
“Established programs such as Meals on Wheels are reaching seniors in important ways,” Collins writes in her opening statement to the committee, shared with the Bangor Daily News in advance of the hearing. “For many, Meals on Wheels is not just about food — it’s about social sustenance, too. Seniors look forward to greeting the driver and having a conversation. That’s why I’m concerned with the [Trump] administration’s proposed budget cuts to programs like this one.”
Other experts scheduled to address the committee Thursday are Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist from Brigham Young University; Mark Clark, president of the Pima Council on Aging in Arizona; and Richard Creech, an educational consultant with the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network.
“We shouldn’t take lightly the dangers that accompany being socially isolated,” Kaye said. Communities need to recognize the importance of every member of their community to the life of their community.”
The committee will host a second hearing on the topic in May, when experts will discuss how best to combat the isolation of elderly Americans and the negative consequences that result.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.