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For many of us, the holidays are a joyful time, filled with opportunities to celebrate with friends and family. For people who are socially isolated, the holidays can bring opportunities to reconnect with loved ones, as families who live far apart and extended family members find ways to celebrate traditions.
For far too many others, though, the holidays stand as stark reminders of disconnectedness, which can make feelings of loneliness and symptoms of depression worse than ever.
Social isolation is a long-recognized problem for older Americans, particularly the one in three older people who live alone. Similarly, a recent study published in Disability and Health Journal reported that people with disabilities experience loneliness, low perceived social support, and social isolation at significantly higher rates than people without a disability.
Unfortunately, social isolation seems to be increasing, a trend that began even before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation. In the past decade the number of Americans living alone has grown 10 percent. This trend has significant consequences. We know that social isolation can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, increasing the risk of many illnesses, and even premature death. Beyond the human cost of social isolation, there are also financial repercussions. For example, an estimated $6.7 billion in annual Medicare spending is attributable to social isolation among older adults.
That’s why addressing social isolation is an important component of many of the programs funded by ACL. Probably the best-known example is the Older Americans Act congregate meals program, which brings people together for a nutritious meal, but equally important, provides opportunities to socialize. In fact, many participants report that the program is their only social opportunity. Gathering for a meal also provides an opportunity for people to connect to other programs that can reduce isolation.