As research shows impact of loneliness, local organizations work together to keep seniors connected

Loneliness is often considered a mental health problem; however, more research is showing that mental health can manifest itself physically as well.

In St. Clair County, there are numerous organizations, programs, and resources that offer support for seniors, a group particularly vulnerable to the effects of loneliness. By working together, these organizations and initiatives aim to foster greater engagement among the elderly community and reduce senior loneliness.

Kathleen Gallagher, Program Director at St. Clair County Community Mental Health.“We're really concerned about senior loneliness,” says Kathleen Gallagher, Program Director at St. Clair County Community Mental Health (SCCCMH). “The suicide rate for the elderly is going up nationwide, so we are trying to link people up with resources to make sure that we can try to diminish that as much as we can.”

While loneliness and isolation are not struggles faced only by the senior community, the impact of these issues was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in increased attention in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate in the United States reached a historic high in 2022. While nearly every age group experienced an increase, senior citizens experienced a higher increase than others. Compared to 2021, suicide deaths jumped 8.1% among those 65 and over.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office released a report highlighting the impact that loneliness can have on a person’s physical health.

“Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death,” states Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, 19th and 21st Surgeon General of the United States in the 2023 report Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. “The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day… we have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis.”

Throughout the pandemic, seniors were advised to isolate cutting many off from crucial support systems and fostering a fear of going out in public. Now, many are finding it difficult to reconnect with their communities and shift back to their pre-pandemic socializing.

The St. Clair County Community Services Coordinating Body (CSCB) is also working to address this issue. The CSCB is a group of organizations that come together to work on large-scale issues in the community that no agency or organization alone can manage. The CSCB has several different committees to address various issues, one of which is the suicide prevention committee.

Amy Smith, Community Planning Officer for the CSCB, encourages seniors to find ways to stay connected to family, friends, and the community – even if that connection looks a little different for them now than it used to.

Amy Smith, Community Planning Officer for the St. Clair County Community Services Coordinating Body.“I think, for seniors, their daily routine changed so much during the pandemic that it's taking a while for it to get back to what it used to be,” Smith says. “If you don't get to spend a lot of time with your family, create other circles – whether it's through your faith, social clubs, the Council on Aging and some of their programs, or volunteering.”

Smith recognizes that the increased cost of living in recent years has also had an impact on senior isolation, causing additional stress to seniors many of which rely on a fixed income. Once the cost of food, healthcare, and home expenses are taken out of monthly allowances, many seniors are finding there isn’t much left over.

“It's a real struggle for seniors to be able to afford to do things,” Smith says. “What used to cost $50 now costs $100. The cost of everything – even down to getting gas in the car to go to programming at the senior center or go to the grocery store – is a struggle. I hear this all the time from them.”

She advises those who are unable to get out of the house due to physical limitations or tight funding to look for things to do in and around the home such as puzzles that exercise the mind, visiting with nearby neighbors, walking around the neighborhood, or even chair exercises.

Community members participate in chair volleyball, one of the recreational programs offered through St. Clair County Council on Aging.

Another organization working to address senior loneliness is the St. Clair County Council on Aging, which has a wide variety of programs and activities. They are trying to find new ways to reach seniors in the community to keep them connected. With help from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, one of those new initiatives is done through a few local pharmacies, which are conducting isolation screenings.

Scott Crawford, Executive Director of the Council on Aging.“If a senior identifies as socially isolated, they then are referred to us and we reach out to them and try and get them involved in whatever way we can,” says Scott Crawford, Executive Director of the Council on Aging.

Delivery drivers for the Meals on Wheels program also try to take notice when seniors are particularly isolated so the Council on Aging can reach out. Crawford says they typically try to encourage seniors to come to the Council on Aging for programming and activities; however, sometimes it’s not possible. That’s when programs such as Friendly Visitor and Friendly Caller are particularly valuable to keeping seniors connected.

“We pair volunteers with those seniors just to make a phone call or check in on a regular basis,” Crawford says.

The Friendly Caller program is also a great way for seniors with physical limitations to volunteer within the community, as it can be done right from home. The frequency and length of the calls are decided by the caller and the person being called – some people receive a call weekly and some more or less frequently. He says anyone interested in volunteering with that program can simply call the office to get started.

“A lot of times, that sense of purpose is huge – to know someone else is counting on you to call,” he says.

Another local initiative to help seniors combat loneliness is through the Dementia and Alzheimer’s Association of St. Clair County which is designed to support senior caregivers.

Debra Johnson, CEO of St. Clair County Community Mental Health and President of the Dementia and Alzheimer’s Association of St. Clair County.
“If you're a senior and you're caring for your spouse who has dementia or Alzheimer's, if you don't have a connection to others, that is really going to affect your mental health,” says Debra Johnson, CEO of SCCCMH and President of the Dementia and Alzheimer’s Association of St. Clair County.

This is why Respite Grants are important. Available for anyone who is a caregiver to a St. Clair County resident with dementia or Alzheimer’s, Respite Grants provide a temporary rest from caring for a loved one, so they can take care of errands and themselves while having the peace of mind that their loved one is safe.

While there are various organizations and initiatives working to help seniors combat loneliness, one of the most important ways to do this is for the general community to be aware of this issue and offer support.

“There are all kinds of things that you can do to help seniors with loneliness,” Johnson says. “Simple gestures like reaching out and sending a card, sending a text, picking up the phone, spending half an hour with them, or dropping off a small plate of cookies can make a big difference.”

Crawford adds that encouraging seniors to get involved with local programs is an important step as well.

“If you have a neighbor or family member that you know is isolated or you think is becoming isolated, encourage them to call us or another agency in the community to get help and get connected,” Crawford says. “It’s a slippery slope that once you start going down is very easy to just stay within your own four walls. So, be aware of your neighbor’s needs and push them to get out and get involved.”
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Read more articles by Gabrielle Haiderer.

Gabrielle "Gabe" Haiderer is passionate about sharing stories that show the positive interactions between individuals and businesses that occur every day in our communities - interactions that inspire hope and motivate community growth. She has used this passion to share stories through a variety of media outlets - from television to radio to traditional newspaper to digital news. When she's not writing, Gabe stays busy running her own videography and social media management business in Northern Michigan, caring for her two furkids (Watson the siamese cat and Holmes the Corgi), spending time with her husband, and tending her garden.