WASHINGTON, D.C. [02/25/21]—In an effort to address social isolation and loneliness amongst older adults during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, U.S. Senator Tina Smith introduced legislation to help older adults be socially connected and healthy. The Strengthening Social Connections Act would provide emergency supplemental funding to programs that strengthen social connectedness and address the negative health effects of social isolation.
Sen. Smith is urging Senate and House leadership to include provisions from the bill in the next COVID-19 relief package. In a letter to Senate and House leaders, Sen. Smith said that many older adults who are staying home and avoiding in-person social contact with family and friends are unfortunately experiencing an extended period of social isolation and feelings of loneliness. About 71 percent of respondents who completed an online mental health screening tool during the pandemic cited loneliness or isolation as a top reason for their current anxiety or depression.
“I hold the seat that Senator Paul Wellstone once held and take his legacy of voicing the importance of mental health care very seriously,” said Sen. Smith, a member of the Senate Health Committee. “As older adults limit in-person social contact during COVID-19, we need to make sure they’re still connected to their communities. This is critical to helping them be healthy and thrive. I’m working to include measures from this bill in the next COVID-19 relief package and will press Congress to support them. We need to prioritize the well-being of older Americans during this challenging time.”
“We commend Senator Smith for her leadership and focus on addressing social isolation and loneliness among our nation’s older adults, issues that have become even more prevalent over the past year,” said Ellie Hollander, President and CEO, Meals on Wheels America. “The pandemic cut individuals of all ages off from their regular social networks practically overnight and, in doing so, raised more widespread awareness of the detrimental impacts of isolation on physical and mental health. The Strengthening Social Connections Act is vital to promoting critical human connection among older adults for whom living homebound and alone have been a way of life, even before COVID-19.”
“SAGE applauds Senator Smith for introducing this critical piece of legislation,” said Aaron Tax, Director of Advocacy SAGE. “As a population that is too often disconnected from families of origin, more likely to be single, and less likely to have children, LGBT older people have been disproportionately impacted by social isolation. This social isolation has only gotten worse in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Senator Smith’s bill acknowledges the challenges LGBT older people and others face, and it takes an essential first step in alleviating the sometimes hidden consequences of the pandemic.”
Social isolation affected more than 8 million older Americans even before COVID-19. There are many negative physical and mental health outcomes for older adults who lack social connectedness, including heart disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression. Socially isolated seniors also face a 29 percent increased risk of early mortality, which is comparable to mortality rates associated with smoking, obesity and air pollution. Beyond the negative physical and mental health effects of loneliness, social isolation also has economic consequences. Federal Medicare spending is $134 more monthly per person for every socially isolated older adult.
The Strengthening Social Connections Act is supported by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). In addition to Sen. Smith, the letter was signed by Senator Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.).