According to a study published in March, one-third of American seniors feel lonely. The same study found that nearly 30 percent of seniors reported they socialized with family, friends, or neighbors once a week or less. Senior isolation is correlated not just to a decline in mental wellbeing but also physical wellbeing, with another study concluding that “Lonely people are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social connections.”
Senior loneliness is a public health issue, which means it’s a political problem. Bernie Sanders is treating it like one, and proposing a political solution: create a new office within the Administration for Community Living to address social isolation among seniors.
With this move, Sanders is likely taking a cue from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK, which has focused on the social isolation of pensioners. Corbyn has also politicized the issue, blaming austerity for the deterioration of seniors’ quality of life. “Millions of people suffer from chronic loneliness,” Corbyn has said. “Tory cuts to services have deprived them of the support they need.”
In Corbyn’s view, kneecapping the public sector and shredding social services further limits the options of people without much money or mobility, shrinking their worlds and needlessly cutting them off from the rest of society. To give seniors the chance to feel connected again, public resources must be directed back into services and programs. Sanders shares that view.
One thing the proposed office would be tasked with, according to the Sanders campaign’s website, is studying the extent of social isolation among American seniors and its impact on their health and wellbeing. But while studies are needed in the United States to match those that have been conducted in the UK, research alone won’t cut it. Sanders also proposes to address the problem by providing tax-funded grants to municipalities and organizations that want to experiment with new ways of addressing the issue.
Most promisingly, Sanders wants to “expand and modernize senior centers around the country to provide older adults with places to not only enjoy healthy meals together, but also provide space for exercise classes, book clubs, health screenings, routine health care services, and more.” Here, Sanders is likely looking to successful models such as Japan’s.
Japan, which suffers from a society-wide loneliness epidemic and a rapidly aging population, has taken the problem of senior loneliness seriously and invested public money into the creation, staffing, and maintenance of senior centers that offer an array of recreational activities and services. These centers have had a dramatic effect on millions of people’s lives. “It does seem to help me stay independent,” said one day center visitor in a survey. “If I didn’t come here, I would just stay at home and do nothing but sleep or stay in bed all day.”
Another said, “Since I’m injured and can’t move as well, I used to just lay there, stare at the ceiling and listen to the radio, and feel the changing of the seasons. Then someone from the Hana House recommended to me if I would like to go to the day services… Because of this place I’ve become a lot healthier.” A third said simply, “When I come to the day services I get to talk with everyone.” What better cure for loneliness than that?
It appears from Sanders’s proposal that he has the creation of a network like Japan’s in mind. Putting public money toward a robust network of senior centers is a good way to connect seniors to each other, to activities that can improve their physical health and stimulate their curiosity and creativity, and to vital services that might otherwise be hard to come by.
Addressing social isolation directly is only one part of Sanders’s plan for seniors. In the United States, 6.9 million seniors live in poverty and nine million experience food insecurity. “Since 2001,” Sanders’s campaign says, “senior hunger has increased by 45 percent.” Therefore Sanders proposes to expand Social Security, protect pensions, and quadruple the funding for the Older Americans Act, which provides home meals and other critical services.
Sanders also proposes to create a Medicare for All single-payer health care program that will negotiate down drug costs, cover dental, vision, and hearing care for seniors, and cover long-term care services that can help seniors stay in their homes and the communities they know and love. To make this last plan a reality, he proposes to train 7.8 million home health and personal care aides over the next six years by guaranteeing “free direct care training programs through public colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs.”
A Sanders administration will pay for all of this by taxing the rich — Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates don’t deserve their billions nearly as much as every senior deserves to feel connected, cared for, and loved.