Last week, SDSCF joined with Catalyst of San Diego & Imperial Counties, the Gary and Mary West Foundation, Regional Task Force on the Homeless, and the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging to present a special briefing on the growing epidemic of isolation facing older adults in San Diego. Panelists discussed the intersection between social isolation, health outcomes, and homelessness and shared opportunities for funders to make a difference in the lives of vulnerable seniors.
Isolation and Health
Dr. Dilip Jeste, director of the Stein Institute for Research on Aging at UCSD, opened with some sobering statistics. In the US, 162,000 deaths per year are attributable to loneliness – more than those caused by lung cancer or stroke. Dubbed a “silent killer,” social isolation increases the odds of mortality by 30% and is as dangerous for seniors as smoking and obesity.
Illustrating this point, Dr. Ted Chan, who chairs the UCSD Department of Emergency Medicine, told the story of a 72-year-old patient who had an infection but waited weeks to come into the hospital because she was afraid of being exposed to COVID. By the time she sought treatment, she was nearly septic. Even though she was married, the woman had been living separately from her husband in the same house – he’d moved into the garage – to protect one another from the virus. Had she been less isolated, she might have sought care sooner, reducing the severity of her condition.
Isolation and Lack of Social Support Lead to High Rate of Senior Homelessness
The lack of a support network can also be a contributing factor leading seniors to fall into homelessness. As Tamera Kohler, CEO of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless, explained, adults who become homeless after age 50 often do so because they have low social support combined with a traumatic event such as job loss, death of a spouse, or a major illness. Without a social network, these individuals may not know where to turn for help.
Since 2018, our county has seen a significant increase in the number of homeless adults age 55 and over, 88% of whom became homeless here in San Diego according to last year’s Point-In-Time Count. A combination of shame, stigma and fear keeps many of these older people away from homeless shelters, where they can be vulnerable to violence, harassment and exploitation. This leads to extreme social isolation, preventing them from getting services and triggering or worsening health issues that make homeless seniors four to five times more likely to die before their peers.
“We can all advocate for the importance of having a home as our base for health and wellness.”Tamera Kohler
Kohler emphasized the need for affordable housing as the “foundational bedrock” in preventing senior homelessness. Drawing a connection to healthcare, she explained that for older people to be able to access care, they must be housed. “We can all advocate for the importance of having a home as our base for health and wellness.”
Solutions and Systems Change
Shelley Lyford, CEO of West Health and the Gary and Mary West Foundation, provided a ray of hope by sharing the progress her organization has made in helping seniors age in place with access to affordable, high-quality health care. In partnership with the University of California system, West Health is establishing geriatric emergency departments designed specifically for patients age 65 and older, like the one at UC San Diego Health.
Lyford was also a stakeholder in the development of California’s new Master Plan for Aging (MPA), which is a 10-year blueprint to creating an age-friendly state where seniors can preserve their independence and quality of life as they age. West Health is actively working toward several of the MPA priorities, including expanding telehealth to make it easier for isolated and homebound seniors to access needed care.
“When we invest in aging, we are investing in living.”Shelley Lyford
More encouragement came from Dr. Jeste, who shared data-informed strategies to mitigate isolation in seniors. Through research, he has discovered an inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom/compassion, meaning the more wisdom and compassion you have, the less likely you are to be lonely. To increase compassion, seniors must have a sense of purpose and common humanity. He suggested meditation, keeping a gratitude diary and engaging in intergenerational activities. He also mentioned the importance of physical exercise, preventive and therapeutic healthcare, and regular social engagement to manage loneliness at all ages.
Coming Together to Ensure No Senior is Alone
With the number of seniors in San Diego County projected to grow to over a million by 2030, San Diego Seniors Community Foundation President and CEO Bob Kelly emphasized the necessity of investing in infrastructure to support an older population. Through the power of philanthropy and partnerships, SDSCF is working to do that. Our No Senior Alone campaign is raising $1 million to invest in local seniors. All gifts to this campaign are being matched dollar-for-dollar thanks to a special matching challenge from the Sahm Family Foundation.
As Lyford put it, “When we invest in aging, we are investing in living.”