Op-ed: The power of connectedness protects older Vermonters from loneliness

By Mark Boutwell
Senior Solutions

In late February, case manager Pam Halme visited one of her clients, Marjorie (not her real name), who was turning 99 soon. Marjorie has polio and is unable to move herself in any way but has been able to stay in her own home now for many years.

Halme provides care coordination services to Marjorie through Choices for Care, a long-term care program, and ensures that home health aides come seven days per week, twice per day to assist her. Years ago, when Marjorie was in the hospital, her family was told that she could not live at home, but because of her fierce determination, the consistency of Halme’s care coordination, and her home-ccare services, Marjorie is still at home, closely connected to her family.

For Marjorie, and for many other older citizens throughout southeastern Vermont, services by staff like Halme are literally lifesaving. It’s easy to believe that had Marjorie been moved to a nursing home, she would have become isolated from what is most important to her and wouldn’t have seen her 99th birthday.

Established in 1963, Older Americans Month is celebrated every May as a time to recognize older Americans’  contributions and reaffirm commitments to serving the older adults in our communities. You may have a neighbor or a grandmother in circumstances like Marjorie’s. This month we are celebrating older Vermonters who have persevered and continue to thrive in their communities.

In the 2023 Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community, the U.S. Surgeon General states:

Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity. And the harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces, and civic organizations, where performance, productivity, and engagement are diminished.

Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis. If we fail to do so, we will pay an ever-increasing price in the form of our individual and collective health and well-being.

At Senior Solutions, the area agency on aging serving the southeastern Vermont region, we are charged under the Older Americans Act, established in 1965, to plan and develop a comprehensive and coordinated system of services and supports for older adults and family caregivers. The strategic and timely help we provide has been especially developed to enable older Vermonters such as Marjorie to thrive at home and in their communities.

According to the World Population Review, in 2020 Vermont was ranked highest in the nation in meeting the criteria for a rural population. Generally, rural areas share the following characteristics: a small population size; a generally low population density; lower wages, and consequently higher poverty rates; lots of farmland, ranch land, and nature; less access to shopping, doctors, and other services; and an aging population.

The combination of our rural characteristics and our aging population, along with the recent pandemic, creates prime conditions for entrenching social isolation for older Vermonters. It is critical for their well-being and the well-being of our communities that we reach out to them with information about activities they can participate in and services that help them to stay connected. Services such as the Uber-like micro-transit bus service in Windsor and Brattleboro, have been a godsend in this regard. Senior centers and local Cares groups throughout the area
provide weekly meals and activities for social enrichment. Meals on Wheels delivery drivers bring nourishment in the form of nutritious food, a warm smile and perhaps some local news.

I’ve found nothing more heartwarming than riding along with these drivers, mostly older Vermonters themselves, into the hills and valleys and along dirt roads to bring a few minutes of joy to the recipients.

In several towns throughout the region, community nurses are a vital source of health information and care coordination that strengthens their clients’ connection to medical services and their communities. Our Memory Café events bring caregivers and their loved ones together for peer support and enriching activities for those living with dementia. For anyone who is or has been a caregiver, creating opportunities for social connectedness is paramount to their well-being.

We are fortunate to live in an area that is rich with the wide array of services that have enabled the likes of Marjorie to live in the place of her choice and connected to her community. And yet, I know that there are many others who still suffer the effects of isolation and loneliness. At Senior Solutions, we continually seek out new opportunities with our community partners to create networks of services and events to bring folks together to share a meal, a story, or just a smile and a handshake.

What can you do to connect with the older citizens in your community?

I leave you with the refrain from one of my favorite John Prine songs, Hello in There.

You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people often grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”
So, if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.”

Mark Boutwell is the executive director of Senior Solutions Area Agency on Aging, located in Springfield and serving southeastern Vermont.

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