Senators Collins, Casey Lead Hearing on Senior Isolation and Loneliness Exacerbated by COVID-19

Prolonged social isolation and loneliness have been found to have adverse impacts on health comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.


Click HERE to read Senator Collins’ opening statement

Click HERE to read Senator Casey’s opening statement

 

Washington, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Aging Committee, held a hearing to examine the growing isolation and loneliness seniors across the country are experiencing due to COVID-19 and explore what can be done to better assist this vulnerable population.

 

According to a new finding from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, nearly one quarter of older adults are socially isolated, and more than 40 percent report being lonely.  During the COVID-19 pandemic, early studies have suggested that for some older adults, social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders are resulting in increased rates of social isolation and loneliness, which can have serious, even deadly, consequences for the health and well-being of our nation’s seniors.  Prolonged social isolation and loneliness have been found to have adverse impacts on health comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

 

Today’s hearing, titled, “Combating Social Isolation and Loneliness During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” featured testimony from a panel of experts who are supporting older adults in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living, home health, and the community.  The hearing featured a new report published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) titled, “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System.”

 

This hearing builds on the Aging Committee’s long-standing leadership on this issue, including holding the first Congressional hearing on this topic in 2017 and leading the 2020 reauthorization of the Older Americans Act (OAA), which included several policies to reduce social isolation and loneliness.

 

“Maine is the oldest state by median age.  It is aging the fastest.  And it is among the most rural.  One in six Mainers lives in a rural area, and about thirty percent of seniors in our state live alone,” said Senator Collins.  “As the pandemic continues and the epidemic of loneliness and isolation worsens, we run the risk of an infectious disease causing a mental health crisis.  Already, calls to Maine’s mental health support line have increased an estimated 40 percent since the beginning of the pandemic.  We must continue to do more to support our seniors during this pandemic.”

 

“COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem of isolation and loneliness that millions of seniors faced before the pandemic,” said Senator Casey. “I commend local Area Agencies on Aging who are working overtime to find new ways to help seniors combat social isolation and provide nutritious meals so that older adults can stay home and stay safe during the pandemic. I urge my Senate colleagues to support my bills, which would address the effects of the pandemic by providing additional funding to expand senior nutrition programs and SNAP delivery and combat social isolation through the purchase of technology by nursing homes so residents can connect with their loved ones.”  

 

Betsy Sawyer-Manter, President and CEO of SeniorsPlus in Lewiston, Maine, oversees the Area Agency on Aging’s (AAA) nutrition services, caregiver services, Alzheimer’s respite, Medicare, counseling, and health and wellness programs.  During the hearing, Ms. Sawyer-Manter discussed her work to shift to virtual programming in place of home visits and to scale up the nutrition program to meet growing needs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  She highlighted how these practices have helped to combat social isolation for older adults.

 

Najja Orr, President and CEO of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA), discussed the steps PCA has taken to help seniors during this public health crisis, including their work to strengthen their home-delivered meal program.  He highlighted the need for increased funding and education to bridge the digital divide in communities as the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted many programs and resources to online platforms.  Additionally, Mr. Orr called for expanded flexibility of funding awarded to states and AAA’s through the Older Americans Act, which would allow local governments and agencies to better meet the needs specific to their communities.

 

Dr. Carla Perissinotto, an Associate Professor in the Division of Geriatrics at the University of California San Francisco, oversees inpatient and outpatient clinical programs, and has been leading research on how COVID-19 has exacerbated isolation and loneliness and interventions that may help.  She discussed her findings that were featured in the report published by NASEM, as well as the importance of human connection for seniors in hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities during this pandemic. 

 

Dr. Peter Reed, Director of the Sanford Center for Aging at the University of Nevada Reno, discussed a portal he created for older adults in Nevada to easily communicate their needs in areas including telehealth, social support, and food and medicine.  This portal, called the Nevada COVID-19 Aging Network Rapid Response (Nevada CAN), was launched on April 1st and has served hundreds of seniors during the pandemic.

 

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