Report shines a light on isolation, loneliness

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A report released Tuesday by Common Ground Health underscores the problem of social isolation, especially among certain population segments in the Finger Lakes region.

While the problem spans the age spectrum, a survey of adults in the nine-county region found that among in those in the 50-to-64 age group, 27 percent had concerns about feelings of isolation and loneliness. That compares with 11 percent overall.

Struggles with social isolation and loneliness also were concentrated in the low-income bracket. Among those reporting less than $50,000 in annual income, 52 percent cited feelings of isolation versus 15 percent of those with more than $100,000 in income.

“So many of our neighbors are struggling,” says Wade Norwood, CEO of Common Ground Health. “This spotlight validates the experiences of those who have had a really difficult time and who have felt a lack of support from their communities over the past few years.”

The findings are drawn from the 2022 My Health Story survey of more than 3,700 people 18 and older in Chemung, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Wayne, and Yates counties.

The report notes that a lack of social contact, engagement, or meaningful relationships is a growing concern nationwide that has “significant implications for both individuals and the community’s well-being.” It cites a May 2023 advisory from the U.S. surgeon general titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”

“Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote in the advisory’s introduction. “It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death.

“The mortality impact of being socially disconnected,” Murthy added, “is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity.”

The surgeon general also pointed to the harmful societal consequences seen in schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, “where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished.”

The financial toll is substantial too. Social isolation among older adults accounts for an estimated $6.7 billion in excess Medicare spending annually, the advisory states. And stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness drains an estimated $154 billion annually from employers.

Both the surgeon general’s advisory and the Common Ground Health report noted that COVID-19 exacerbated the problem of isolation and loneliness. But an increase in social disconnection did not begin with the pandemic.

The 2022 American Time Use Survey, an annual report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed a nearly 30 percent decrease in the amount of time Americans spent socializing and communicating compared with two decades earlier. Time spent volunteering dropped similarly.

Research by the Survey Center on American Life points to a decline in close friendships—particularly among men. In 1990, 55 percent of American men reported having at least six close friends and only 3 percent said they had none. By 2021, the percentage reporting at least six close friends had fallen by half, to 27 percent, and those with no close friends had jumped to 15 percent. (For women, the decline in close friendships was a bit smaller but still sizable.)

And in a 2021 poll conducted by the Impact Genome Project and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 18 percent of U.S. adults said they have just one person—or nobody—they can trust for help in their personal lives. The number was 30 percent for Black Americans.

Among the Common Ground Health respondents who reported feelings of isolation or loneliness, 37 percent rated their physical health fair or poor and 55 percent they had fair or poor emotional health. Among all survey respondents, the percentages were significantly lower—21 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

There was a similar divide in responses to the statement, “Where I live gives me a sense of community.” Thirty-one percent of survey participants who cited feelings of social isolation and loneliness disagreed with that statement, compared with 16 percent overall.

To combat the isolation problem, Common Ground Health advocates policies and programs that build intergenerational connections. It pointed to several local efforts focused on this work:

■ St. John’s Collaborative for Intergenerational Learning, a partnership between Nazareth

University and St. John’s that brings students and older adults together in weekly course sessions;

■ Clarissa Uprooted, a collaboration between the Center for Teen Empowerment and the Clarissa Street Reunion Committee; and

■ Generation 2 (G2), a program affiliated with the Strong Museum that pairs school-aged children with consistent adult volunteers for regular, child-directed play sessions.

“Social isolation is a pressing issue with far-reaching consequences for individuals and society as a whole,” the report concludes. “Fostering intergenerational connection is a promising approach that can break down ageist stereotypes, improve emotional and social well-being, provide cognitive and health benefits, and build stronger, more cohesive communities.”

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

3 thoughts on “Report shines a light on isolation, loneliness

  1. Thanks for this important report. I noticed that the ages of the loneliest people corresponded to the ages when people have to work full time but are physically no longer in their prime. Life becomes a cycle of having enough energy to work and not much else. It’s a difficult time of life for many, and health problems just keep loneliness compounding. Money for doctors and medicine means no money for anything else, and barely energy for that full time job. A robust and affordable public health system would be of some help here, but it’s not the whole story. For example, when I was a child, we went to union picnics and union-organized family days, but the unions have been broken since then. Organizations like the Elks have grown empty and silent. Churches can’t seem to handle the lawbreakers in their midst, which triggered an exodus from the church. The public library seems to be the only “third space” left to our communities.

  2. Loneliness is all it’s cracked up to be. My father spent some time in a nursing home. I didn’t mis a day for several years. The days I missed were covered. There were too many residents that were always alone. Everyone’s in while I would stop and talk to a resident. Then you find out there is a family, but they are too busy to visit. Sometimes they live just a couple of miles from the home. Our older population, our elderly, deserve better. Lets not forget, some of us are are a close second. Before you you know it you’ll be looking out from in and get to experience loneliness up close and personal.

  3. Thanks for bringing the survey results front and center. Critical to well-being.
    I hope this reporting will create some impetus to finding the path to a solution, however small at the start.

    Well done.

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