What is social isolation and how is it impacting Fort Wayne residents?

Three years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down life as we knew it. Restaurants, social events and workplaces were all shut down, and people were asked to stay home and avoid close contact with others. Nearly 43 states issued lockdown or stay-at-home orders, including Indiana. 

Most Americans returned to open dining and pre-covid routines in 2022, but nearly a third of people stated it’d be a year or more before they returned to “normal”, according to a December 2022 Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus index. 

The pandemic raised many questions, including when “normal” life would return and how the economy would rebound after everything subsides. 

For some, the pandemic gave them distance from a quick-paced life, allowing them to explore new paths of interest, such as crocheting, learning a new instrument, or finally starting a home project. Many people grew more conscious of addressing their mental health and seeking therapy, due to the fact that many disorders worsened from the isolation and increased uncertainty of the future. 

For older citizens, those near and well into retirement, the social isolation created by the pandemic only exacerbated the little interaction to which they were accustomed. 

Social isolation is the lack of social contact with people that one can interact with on a regular basis. This issue, which impacts all age groups, disproportionately affects older residents who face a higher risk than others. An issue long before the pandemic, social isolation only grew during the last three years.

In Northeast Indiana, 25 percent of the population is between the ages of 45 to 64, with around 16.5 percent 65 or older. This population was undoubtedly impacted by the increased social isolation created during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we enter summer, the number of COVID-19 cases has fallen dramatically and the WHO has declared COVID-19 is no longer a global emergency.  While there isn’t a definitive “back to normal,” the world of public spaces is once again bustling, and people are attempting to navigate the challenging task of returning to the social circles they’ve long since abandoned.

Working to help Hoosiers address social isolation, AARP Indiana’s Director of Community Engagement Emily Gorman says one in five Americans ages 65 and older are socially isolated. Twenty-six percent of these individuals have an increased risk of early death due to subjective feelings of loneliness. Research done by AARP shows that social isolation impacts more than eight million people who are 50 years old or more, and that number is growing as 10,000 Americans a day turn 65. 

While social isolation affects everyone differently, there are signs to look for. They include deep boredom, general lack of interest and withdrawal, losing interest in personal hygiene, poor eating and nutrition, significant disrepair, and clutter and hoarding in the home according to the AARP, which works to identify those signs and connect with those most impacted.
In collaboration with the Gerontological Society of America, AARP created Connect2Affect. This tool provides a free assessment with ten short steps to help determine one’s risks for social isolation. After taking the assessment participants can view their personal isolation risk and are provided with guidance on how to navigate their social isolation moving forward. Additional resources are available to those who want to care for their emotional and physical health. 

In Fort Wayne, the Mayors Age Friendly Council is working to identify ways to improve within the 8 Domains of Livability, a framework created by AARP. Their works strives to make Fort Wayne a more livable and empowering community for all residents. While they are primarily concerned with the population that is 50 years and older, their work often impacts all residents. 

Portrait of the members of the Mayor's Age-Friendly Council (minus a few who were not present) at Citizen's Square.To organize and prioritize their work, the council uses the 8 Domains of Livability. The eight domains are Outdoor Spaces and Buildings, Transportation, Housing, Social Participation, Respect and Inclusion, Work and Civic Engagement, Communication and Information, and lastly Community and Health Services. Each board member on the council represents a specific domain, but there is a lot of overlap between each, and unsurprisingly, many of the domains have an impact on social isolation.

One of the ways the Age Friendly Council is helping is by providing resources to those dealing with social isolation via the Fort Wayne AARP Livable Communities Map. AARP scores communities on a scale of 1-100 based on the average score of the livability categories in that particular region/ This is called the Overall Livability Score. According to AARP, communities are scored by comparing them to one another, the average community gets a score of 50, while above-average communities score higher and below-average communities score lower. 

Fort Wayne’s current score is 56, placing the city within the top half of communities in the U.S, but still illustrating the work still needed for improvement. 

Maureen Musi, Chief Operating Officer of Aging & In-Home Services in NE Indiana, says the biggest areas for improvment identified locally includes housing and transportation, both of which are part of the 8 Domains of Livability. Musi has been a resident of Fort Wayne for over thirty years, and she believes transportation has long been an issue impacting older residents.

Addressing transportation options and creating accessible spaces would be a step in the right direction for helping socially isolated residents. This is especially important in a community that is less walkable than others of comparable size, like Fort Wayne is. 

Members of the Mayor's Age-Friendly Council discuss issues during their meeting at Citizen's Square.The consensus among the Age Friendly Council members was that issues of social isolation across all social classes and culture lines, and of the impacted, those who are homebound are particularly at risk. 

Much like any modern solution, technology has also been a big help in fighting social isolation. When residents can’t physically leave their homes to visit one another, technology bridges the gap.

One local resource, Senior Chat, connects older individuals to volunteers, who can call to talk over the phone. This program gives socially isolated people the opportunity to talk about whatever is going on in their lives.

The ongoing challenge within the program includes finding the correct type of system in place that protects both volunteers and clients and finding the software and funding to implement initiatives like this.

Another common issue is language barriers, which can force social isolation on residents who cannot communicate with others as their own social groups dwindle over the years. 

“While their children might speak English and Spanish, they don’t,” says Musi, “so they have an even tougher time than our English-speaking seniors.”

Musi says social isolation existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic and was only amplified in the years that followed. Of the many ways residents find themselves being socially isolated some include the death of a spouse, children moving away, and the loss of social outings that normally included couples due to now being the odd one out. 
Ani Etter, Executive Director of Volunteer Fort Wayne.
Ani Etter, Executive Director of Volunteer Fort Wayne says the pandemic created obstacles for many residents, and while lives are slowly resuming, there is a “new normal” that residents are adapting to. 

All social programs were stopped during the pandemic, and other services that allowed for small sources of interaction were also forced to stop. This included nutrition deliveries and case management meetings that transitioned to telephone and virtual meetings. 

“I don’t know that we have a true understanding of the enormity of it,” says Etter. “I would say social isolation increased during COVID; we certainly were hearing from a greater number of clients who were feeling socially isolated. One of the things that we have heard repeatedly when doing focus groups with clients is that they really want to interact with people who are their peers. That's really something that is missing for them. They want to talk to people who remember the things that they remember– that is one thing that we're still trying to tackle.” 

One of the new innovations adopted due to the pandemic is GrandPads being provided to older residents in the community. These devices have allowed clients to interact with both family members and case managers through video chats, access sites permitted across the platform and interact with resources in the outside world. 

“In a nutshell, it’s a very simplified version of an iPad,” says Etter. “It’s very safe for an individual to use, they cannot get spammed, they cannot be contacted by anyone outside of their network.” 

Social isolation impacts everyone in one aspect or another. Sue Ehinger, a retired administrator for Parkview and Committee Chair of the Mayor's Age Council says she felt the isolation increase before the pandemic when she retired in 2019.
Sue Ehinger, a retired administrator for Parkview and Committee Chair of the Mayor's Age Council.
“When I first retired, I didn't call it social isolation, but it was because I was immersed with a lot of people and then all of a sudden, it was just my family and my husband,” she says. “It felt different. The longer I didn't participate in events the less likely I wanted to. This has got me thinking about what I need to do differently. I know my mom always told me she went to a class because she needed other people around her and she recognized that, it made her mentally better.’”

While young people are becoming more comfortable with voicing their mental health struggles and seeking treatment, this is an obstacle for older residents to overcome. Musi says mental health plays a role in social isolation, even if the older generations aren’t comfortable speaking about it.

“I think that's still a subject that's not easily brought up because generationally speaking, that's not what you did,” Musi says. “You just suck it up. You did what you had to do and you're not going around talking about your feelings and that you feel sad. I don't even think that they call themselves socially isolated. They just think, ‘Oh, this is what life is now.’”

While this is a looming problem, Musi says she’s positive about changes coming.

“I have hope for the future,” she says. “That when the young adults of today are seniors, that perhaps this will not be so much of an issue because they will be very transparent with their feelings.”

While the Mayors Age Council continues to work towards lessening the strains social isolation has on community members, Etter says there are ways on an individual level to help those struggling, like inviting your neighbors for dinner, or asking if they’d like to go for a walk.

“That inclusivity, I think sometimes because we are shut in a home, we forget about them,” says Etter. “That's one thing anyone could do, just not forget those living around you.”

This story was made possible by AARP Indiana
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