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How the media loves to talk about loneliness among older adults

Shall we take this WSJ article at face value? Rant on. From yesterday’s Wall Street Journal – pops up a dramatic headline, The Loneliest Generation, describing how baby boomer Americans, more than ever, are aging alone. Did you know that ‘social isolation’ has become a named baby boomer health condition, spiking Medicare costs by an additional $134 per enrollee – tucked into the list that includes arthritis (+$117 of cost) and diabetes (+$270), source AARP?  Most of that additional spend was on nursing facilities and additional hospitalization.  Hmm.  What’s wrong?

Mulling the numbers. Okay, let’s remind ourselves that baby boomers make up the population ranging in birth year from 1946-1964.  Only those born in 1953 or earlier are Medicare-eligible (that is, roughly 49 million people aged 65+).  So aside from the fact that social isolation is, as of 2016, a billable diagnosis (who knew?), please note that the ineligible younger boomers are generally not costing Medicare any money. And one more snarky point: this ‘new’ observation about loneliness among older adults is unchanged from 2008 or any of the previous cited research.

Moving on to the twisted topic at hand. From this WSJ article “Americans More than Ever are Aging Alone,” what’s it say? 8.3% of baby boomers (born 1946-1964) reported often feeling lonely, per the 2014 census data, in comparison to 7.2% of the silent generation, born before 1946. Those boomers -- seems like a bigger number, right? Hold on, statistics alert!  Surviving baby boomers add up to around 65 million as of that census. There are only 30 million that make up the ‘silent’ and ‘greatest’ generation that were even alive to be counted. Granted that loneliness and social isolation are health hazards akin to smoking 15 cigarettes per day (AARP again). But approximately 33% of baby boomers are obese, only 8.3% identified as lonely. The WSJ article then hammered the point, finding people who are estranged from their relatives and with no one to talk to, are left on the floor in a doorway, unable to yell loud enough to be heard, or they are home alone decorating for the holidays, which brings us to…

…Technology to help the lonely feel connected and safe. As the numbers make somewhat clear, from a demographic standpoint, nothing has really changed. Part of the problem with articles like these is that they offer inferential statistics for mission-motivated vendors to use in a pitch. “We have a [choose one: fall detector, radar sensor, smart wearable, medical alert, smart speaker, virtual assistant] that will solve the aging loneliness epidemic as detailed in the Wall Street Journal. (We don’t have much tech to mitigate the more significant boomer problem of obesity, though, so we won’t bring that up.) 

How about a PERS devices (safety) or Dorot’s University without Walls (social connection)? A modicum of technology can go a long way to improve safety and social connection. One person in the article holds up what appears to be a medical alert wrist button, and notes that he now sleeps with his cellphone – a good start, though if he has done that much research, more tech could also be engaging. Ironically, social networking technology has more recently been shown to make people feel even lonelier, so loneliness among the elderly won’t be mitigated by more time spent on Facebook. Perhaps for those in the WSJ article, someone by now has reached out to them, invited them to join a club, go to a meeting, or showed them how to participate in a phone-based discussion forum. Rant off.


Never thought I would say this, but after seeing "Waverly Galleries" last night with a friend whose husband is aging with vasculaar dimentia, I now understand how some type of communicative robotic device might be useful.  Humor quickly turned to heartbreak as Elaine May took us on her journey of hearing/cognition changes, and watching how loving family members were at their wits end as she became more isolated, repetitive in her conversation causing more isolation as people unconsciously ignored her or grew verbally frustrated with the lack of connectiveness.  Afterward, my friend told me that she had to learn to listen on an emotional level and respond to his feelings rather than look for conversation, but even armed with that understanding, she found herself emotionally exhausted as he became ever more isolated.  A robotic communicative device might be better suited to complement, not totally substitute for, human caring and interaction . . .

Interesting question. Loneliness has always existed but I would guess that research has more recently demonstrated the correlation with health degradation. Don't you think? 

It’s always been an issue, but it’s different and has more visibility now. (Social media creates a venue for highlighting issues like this one). Families were assumed to fill the hole in elder’s lives before Boomers. That’s not a safe assumption today. And social media doesn’t replace interaction with the same effect as person-to-person engagement. We Boomers believed there will always be a place to go nuts with friends. We didn’t consider the possibility friends no longer want to get together and party, or do the things we did in our teens and twenties. I still love Tower of Power live shows, but it's not easy to find a crew to join me there.

The tech already exists to solve loneliness and social isolation. and any local newspaper website or lists events where one can go and meet other people. There are also telephone based services, eg. Senior Center Without Walls, where people can join conference calls and talk about current events or a hobby.

What is needed are ambassadors - real live living people who can reach a hand out and say, "join us." Because people want to be invited. Rant off ;)

When we talk about loneliness, I think we forget that there is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need people in out lives. But with so much focus on loneliness, I am wondering if we are making too many assumptions that being alone = feeling lonely, or that feeling lonely from time to time is not ok.


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