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Loneliness and aging: Navigating an enduring crisis

Since the launch of our original version of this report, we have continued our discussions with experts, including Campaign to End Loneliness. This group is among many that, in light of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, are offering some specific advice on keeping engaged with friends, family, and neighbors.

The theme of our original research centered on keeping older individuals better connected with their communities and each other. But now, in early 2020, the same threat of isolation and loneliness looms for a wide swath of the world’s population stemming from the sudden, widespread need for unprecedented physical and social distancing— even quarantines—all intended to slow the near-term transmission of a disease for the greater good of society.

In times of uncertainty, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, loneliness becomes almost ubiquitous, especially when connections unexpectedly need to be virtual, rather than physical. Potential sources of support for those of any age who now feel isolated are of necessity, technology centered.

So, for the benefit of all age groups, we revisit those earlier truths along with new ideas as together, we battle loneliness on a larger scale and seek to keep mitigating it in the future.

Many of us appreciate the occasional opportunity to disconnect, giving our minds and bodies a chance to recharge against the din of the increasingly noisy world. But when solitude becomes long-term and turns into loneliness, the results can be detrimental and potentially devastating, particularly for older adults.

For many, loneliness arises from unmet needs for social interactions. Representing more than just an unwelcome rip in one’s social fabric, it’s a precursor to a host of poor medical and social outcomes that have economic ripple effects across families, multiple industries, and society. Although everyone has a different threshold for the level of social interaction they need, the risk of loneliness as a harbinger for future decline seems unavoidable in later life.

The increase in the aging population is well-known and well-documented. According to recent United Nations data, by 2050, one in six people in the world will be over age 65 (16%), up from one in 11 in 2019 (9%). At that time, one in four persons living in Europe and Northern America could be aged 65 or over.

And the number of persons aged 80 years or over is projected to triple, from 143 million in 2019 to 426 million in 2050. With this increase in older citizens comes the potential for an increasing lonely population, wrestling with the need to rebuild and reclaim its social capital, but without the means or wherewithal to do so.

Popular press has recognized the importance of loneliness growing among older adults. Media sources ranging from The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, The Japan Times, and The Guardian have all recently addressed its impact on society.

The topic has relevance not only to individuals and families, but also to medical professionals, corporations, advocacy groups and governments that are affected by its consequences. Indeed, in January 2018, the UK appointed the world's first Minister for Loneliness.

Now, many diverse stakeholders have the opportunity to help mitigate the impact. To better understand the magnitude of this issue, current interventions, and ideas for future solutions, we conducted 50 interviews with experts from six countries and representing a variety of disciplines.

We gained unique insights from this global group of medical professionals, social workers, academic researchers, technologists, consumer and device manufacturing experts, software startups focused on the aging market, advocacy groups and government officials.

This report focuses on five important questions:

Why must organizations understand loneliness and aging?

What precipitates loneliness?

Why is loneliness so difficult to mitigate?

How is loneliness in the aging population being alleviated today?

What are guidelines for future solutions?


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