The 2018 Connectivity Summit on Rural Aging in Portland, Maine, brought together leaders from business, healthcare, government, and academia to spark a movement to address the challenges faced by rural older adults. The two-day conference, hosted by Tivity Health in partnership with the MIT AgeLab, Health eVillages, and the Jefferson College of Population Health, addressed issues of social isolation and loneliness among older adults in rural communities. Social isolation has been shown to have a significant impact on health and wellbeing, with its prevalence among older adults amounting to a public health crisis. But awareness of the issue in the United States does not match its severity.
"Loneliness is the modern epidemic," said Donato Tramuto, CEO of Tivity Health. Despite advances in communications technologies in the 21st century, the problem of social disconnectedness has worsened significantly in recent decades. While older adults are more vulnerable to the health impacts of being isolated, younger people also suffer from being disconnected; they report loneliness at a rate 50 percent higher than the older population.
The Summit rolled out results of a national survey on social isolation in rural communities. Micah Roberts of Public Opinion Strategies, which administered the telephone poll of 400 rural older adults across the United States, discussed key findings from the survey:
- 32 percent of rural older adults are socially isolated.
- Majorities of rural older adults say that elected officials and businesses should do more to address their problems.
- 64 percent of older adults believe that social isolation has a deleterious impact on health—but the most isolated are the least likely to say social isolation has an effect on health, suggesting a crucial gap in knowledge.
Joseph Coughlin, Founder and Director of the MIT AgeLab, attributed the high rates of isolation to the decline of social capital in the United States, as well as to the worldwide increase of "households of one" among people of all ages. "Where are the churches, where are the NGOs, where are the clubs?" he asked. The current cohort of older adults in the U.S. may prove to be a more engaged population than the approaching wave of aging Baby Boomers. The upcoming group of older Boomers could be in worse straits than the current one in terms of the vibrancy of their social networks.
The Summit featured panels of experts which viewed rural aging issues and social isolation from a number of perspectives.
Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said, "We tend to fall into the trap of describing rural America either as a utopia or a total hellhole." He discussed the discovery of "bright spots" in rural Appalachia. Researchers looking to demonstrate a general correlation between economic indicators and health outcomes discovered that a small number of low-income rural areas overcame or even reversed the trend. These "bright spots" were distinguished by the presence of local leaders or institutions that unified the community and drove successes.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University, gave an overview of the biological mechanisms by which social isolation and loneliness affect health, as well as the impact that social isolation has on the risk of mortality, which is comparable to well-known risk factors such as smoking and obesity.
Jake Swanton, Senior Federal Policy Manager of Lyft, discussed the transformation of the ride-sharing company beyond "taking Millennials to and from beer halls." Twenty-five percent of Lyft's rides go to or from underserved communities. One million Lyft users are older adults who call rides for themselves using a smartphone. Fifteen percent of Lyft users are caregivers employing the service on behalf of a care recipient. The rise of "concierge" services like GoGoGrandparent, which allow individuals to order rides without a smartphone, has begun to expand the number of older users who ride-share. And ride-share services are not just for older adults to use to get around; 25 percent of Lyft drivers are over the age of 50.
Representative Joseph Kennedy III from the Massachusetts 4th District also participated in the Summit, giving a speech highlighting the challenges facing older Americans today. For example, 43 percent of older adults are non-users of technology. On average, one-third of older adults' Social Security checks are consumed by healthcare costs. The number of bankruptcies of those aged 65 and older has tripled. And opioid abuse has doubled among those aged 50 and older. On the issue of social isolation, Representative Kennedy said, "Addressing the challenge begins with strengthening the proven programs that touch the lives of seniors across the country," such as Meals on Wheels, Senior Corps, and Medicare.
The Summit tasked attendees to brainstorm next steps for tackling social isolation. Ideas included:
- A national campaign to raise awareness around social isolation, with messaging based on acts of intergenerational connection.
- A website that allows users to search for federal benefits eligibility across all government agencies (“a Kayak.com for eligibility”)
- A social isolation community “playbook” that describes best practices for fostering social engagement locally.
In his closing remarks, Dr. Coughlin noted, “In policy, numbers do not matter. It is the intensity that matters.” Mr. Tramuto emphasized the need for greater awareness about the issue of social isolation, a modern problem that will only become more urgent as the older population increases in the coming years.
A new rural aging hub was also announced, located at ruralage.com, which was developed in the wake of the 2017 Connectivity Summit.