The growth of our population of seniors continues at an accelerating pace. Every day, about 10,000 Americans reach age 65. Today, fully 20% of the population in Iowa has attained this status. Numbers are even higher in Florida. Other states soon will follow. Demographers tell us that this trend will continue for the next decade, so about 1 in 5 of all Americans will be age 65 and older by 2030.
As a result of this major demographic shift, we are witnessing the early stages of the development of a new life phase that soon will evolve its own culture and lifestyle. Until this transformation actually takes place, however, we cannot permit this period of advanced age to be one where social isolation, poor health, and minimal wellbeing predominate.
As seniors grow older, they are at increasing risk of social isolation. Friendships from work life recede over time, children move away, spouses and close friends die, and younger people replace long-time neighbors. This dynamic can lead to depression, inappropriate substance use and even death, sometimes by suicide. Social isolation can be as deadly as smoking.
At the same time, communication capacities can decline with the onset of hearing problems, reduced physical mobility, and declining visual acuity. All of these changes also take a toll on one’s sense of personal worth and wellbeing.
Good social connectedness promotes the reverse: longer life, better health and increased wellbeing. Such connectedness actually can thrive in communities that promote engagement and participation. This engagement can occur for seniors if health issues are addressed early (e.g., hearing aids are available, good healthcare is accessible on a routine basis, and physical activity is integral to the community).
Many of our urban centers have developed communities of seniors with these characteristics. In these communities, seniors help each other with transportation needs, cross visit and entertain, and engage each other intellectually and emotionally. Many have community sites where seniors can congregate. Examples of these communities would include several senior villages in the Washington, D.C., area and in other major cities.
Yet, at the same time, it is important not to paint too rosy a picture of our urban centers. Income and racial divides separate more affluent seniors from those who live in poverty and those who are part of minority communities. Clearly, the latter groups should be afforded the same opportunity to engage and participate in communities of seniors.
Rural communities present even greater challenges. Distances are much farther, fewer transportation and health resources are available, and many areas lack nearby informal places where seniors can congregate. About one quarter of all seniors live in rural or small town areas. Further, 30% of these rural seniors live in poverty or near poverty.
Thus, an important question arises about how to improve our social support networks for seniors. Below are a few thoughts about this question.