Today a wide range of people — both professionals and lay persons — speak of what’s called an “epidemic of loneliness” across the land. The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, released an Advisory in the spring of 2023 calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country. He called for a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection, something never before implemented in the U.S. It details recommendations that individuals, governments, workplaces, health systems, and community organizations can take to increase connection in their lives, communities, and across the country and improve their health.
Here we will look specifically at what Coloradans are doing to address loneliness and what resources for help are available. For the full picture of what this loneliness epidemic entails in general, please see our related article at “Epidemic of Loneliness” Drawing A Lot of Attention – AgeWise Colorado Other articles are available at: The Dangers of Social Isolation and Loneliness for Older Adults – AgeWise Colorado and Ways to Fight the Isolation Foe – AgeWise Colorado as well.
Colorado physician researching loneliness and Alzheimer’s
Dr. Rebecca Mullen, assistant professor in the University of Colorado Department of Family Medicine, is looking into the association between loneliness and brain functioning — particularly the heightened risk for dementia. She received a three-year grant from the Alzheimer’s Association to explore links between the two.
Dr. Mullen noted that greater loneliness has been linked to worsened performance on various measures including global cognition, immediate recall, and delayed recall. One of her hypotheses that she is exploring is that loneliness may be a very early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, even before cognition starts declining. “Previous work has illustrated that those with transient loneliness do not have increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” she said, “while those with persistent loneliness do – apart from depression or genetic risk. This implies that recovery from loneliness may be protective against developing dementia.” She posits that effective interventions to decrease loneliness in older adults may be one factor that might help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Mullen did note a “chicken and egg” element in this research. How so? Because while loneliness is known to increase the risk of dementia, people with cognitive impairment tend to have higher levels of loneliness, potentially due to their social disengagement. So which comes first? Dr. Mullen also believes that the increased cognitive risk posed by loneliness may be comparable to other well-known dementia risk factors, such as physical inactivity and type 2 diabetes, and that the biomarkers associated with loneliness may accumulate in the brain before cognitive decline starts. She sees her three-year study as a critical first step toward testing therapeutic loneliness interventions to enhance Alzheimer’s treatment. Currently there are an estimated 76,000 Coloradans among 6.5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease.
Colorado programs help deal with loneliness
The Colorado Sun, a Denver-based news outlet, in a feature article said, “Loneliness refers to the subjective experience that results from having inadequate connections with others.” It was distinguishing this from “social isolation,” which it defined as objectively having few relationships or group memberships and infrequent social interaction.
The Sun was reporting on connections people are making through the AmeriCorps-sponsored Senior Companion Program (SCP), which is part of a volunteer and civic engagement organization known as Spark the Change Colorado. SCP matches volunteers who are 55 years or older with people who are also older than 55, known as clients. The program aims to support the independence of older adults in their homes, and create friendships that allow people to “continue to be vibrant, contributing members of our communities.”
Spark the Change Colorado says on its website that it actually powers two AmeriCorps Seniors Programs: The Senior Companion Program and RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer program). Spark says SCP engages 55+ individuals “to realize the independence of older adults in their home and as a team.” Volunteers offer companionship and friendship, provide transportation to medical appointments or to social events, help with grocery and other shopping, assist with simple chores like preparing meals and washing dishes, help with reading, etc. In the process, volunteers can alert family members or caregivers to potential health issues or other situations of concern. RSVP matches older adults who are willing to help with local organizations on the front lines of meeting community needs. This involvement in the community can go far in reducing or averting loneliness.
Volunteers can apply online at https://www.sparkthechangecolorado.org/ or download and print a paper application. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Spark the Change serves in Adams, Arapahoe, Denver, Douglas, Huerfano, Jefferson, Las Animas and Pueblo counties.
LinkAGES Colorado promotes intergenerational connections
A popular conception is that older adults are thought more likely to be lonely than younger persons, but according to the Surgeon General’s report, young adults are nearly twice as likely to be lonely as older adults. About 80% of adults aged 18 to 24 report feeling lonely compared to roughly 40% of those aged 66 and older. Intergenerational connection is one way advocates have identified to lessen loneliness and social isolation for both groups, even though in our age-segregated society relationships between unrelated younger and older adults are quite uncommon.
LinkAGES Colorado (https://www.linkagescolorado.org/) is one organization focused on such intergenerational connection. It describes its goals being to prevent or reduce social isolation through meaningful connections across ages and make intergenerational programming the norm by raising awareness of the power of intergenerational connections.
Desired results for younger participants include improved self-esteem, developing authentic relationships with persons from a different age group, reducing ageist beliefs, increased empathy, and broadened perspectives. For older participants, LinkAGES sees the same advantages but adds improved cognitive function and improved memory as hoped-for results.
Rachel Cohen, executive director of LinkAGES, says the program “goes beyond just getting people of different generations in a room together. It’s all about intention. When we say intentional, it means that we design programs specifically to facilitate a connection.” She added that programs are always multisession because relationships and connections take time. “It takes time for people to open up,” she says, “especially when you’re dealing with loneliness and social isolation.”
Coloradans’ family and friends can also be key to combat loneliness
Another suggestion often made is to coach social interaction through mindfulness therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy because it is known the brain has a capacity to rewire itself. One physician says that training people on processing emotional cues or social interactions on a regular basis can lead to adaptations in regions of the brain that govern social interaction. He notes activities that reinforce social bonds, such as exercising together and eating together, may be part of a response.
Friends and family must also be proactive about engaging with lonely people on terms that work for them. Finding ways to support others gives lonely people a chance to connect — and can help them break out of a kind of self-centered thinking that loneliness can exacerbate. Finding ways to help people reset their expectations, possibly through therapy, while coaching them on new ways to engage with the people around them could be helpful. As is helping people understand where their loneliness is coming from and why it keeps returning.
Connections to Colorado resources to combat loneliness
Coloradans who are facing loneliness or who are caring for someone afflicted by loneliness can explore some of the resources described earlier in this article (Spark The Change Colorado, LinkAGES, etc.). A good place for senior Coloradans to look for help and referrals to additional resources is the Area Agency on Aging in their area. These AAAs, which are AgeWise Colorado Providers, can be found on this AgeWise website at https://agewisecolorado.org/aging-advocacy/area-agencies-on-aging/.
Additional AgeWise Colorado Providers that offer companion support are Silver Key (https://agewisecolorado.org/provider/silver-key-senior-services/), A Little Help (https://agewisecolorado.org/provider/a-little-help/), Porchlight Friends (https://agewisecolorado.org/provider/porchlight-friends/), and Cultivate (https://agewisecolorado.org/provider/cultivate/.) You might also want to check out this AgeWise article on the subject: https://agewisecolorado.org/blog/the-dangers-of-social-isolation-and-loneliness-for-older-adults/, which includes overview information and suggestions on managing loneliness.
Finally, the full range of AmeriCorps Seniors programs can be found at https://americorps.gov/serve/americorps-seniors. There is also a “Pathfinder” tool to search for volunteer opportunities at https://americorps.gov/serve/americorps-seniors/americorps-seniors-pathfinder.
AmeriCorps Seniors reports that their volunteers experience decreased anxiety, depression, and loneliness, with 84% reporting stable or improving health after one year of service. Also, by connecting with others and being part of something bigger, 88% of these volunteers who felt a lack of companionship reported fewer feelings of isolation after becoming an AmeriCorps Seniors volunteer.