U.S. Senator Tina Smith’s Legislation to Prevent Social Isolation Among Seniors and Improve Care for Tribal Elders Becomes Law

WASHINGTON, D.C. [03/27/20]—U.S. Senator Tina Smith’s (D-Minn.) measures to address the negative mental and physical health effects—and the economic consequences—of social isolation among seniors, as well as efforts to strengthen grants for Tribal organizations to provide home and community-based services, were signed into law by the President this week as part of the Older Americans Act reauthorization.

The legislation signed into law includes provisions from Sen. Smith’s Older Americans Social Isolation and Loneliness Prevention Act, and from Sen. Smith’s bipartisan Strengthening Services for Native Elders Act with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). 

Sen. Smith says that COVID-19 isolation and social distancing could take a serious toll on Americans’ mental health. Already, prior to the pandemic, a study found that 8 million older Americans experience social isolation, and nearly half of older adults feel isolated, alone, or left out. Socially isolated seniors face a 29 percent increased risk of mortality. And when it comes to federal Medicare spending, it’s $134 more per person per month for every socially isolated older adult. This is compared to Medicare spending on chronic conditions.

“During this pandemic, too many people—including many older Americans—are feeling lonely, worried and disconnected,” said Sen. Smith. “Seniors need to be connected to their communities in order to thrive. I’m pleased that my provisions to address social isolation and loneliness among seniors are now law. This will help states pursue projects that attack this problem and I’m also glad that my measures to help Tribes provide home and community-based services are now law. Tribal elders in Minnesota and across the country should be able to age with dignity in their own homes while still maintaining access to quality health care.” 

Sen. Smith’s Older Americans Social Isolation and Loneliness Prevention Act revised the Older Americans Act (OAA) so that there are supports and services in place to allow states to better coordinate to address social isolation and loneliness among older Americans. The Older Americans Social Isolation and Loneliness Prevention Act supports screening for the prevention of social isolation and loneliness and coordination of supportive services and health care to address social isolation and loneliness; increases the focus of the Assistant Secretary for Aging on social isolation and loneliness through long-term planning and convening an interagency working group with aging network stakeholders on this topic; and allows states to pursue grant funding for projects that address social isolation and loneliness among older individuals. 

The Strengthening Services for Native Elders Act will help Tribal organizations provide a wider range of home and community-based health services to American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) elders, including transportation, case management, and health and wellness programs. Right now there are more than 26 million AIAN adults over age 65 living in the United States and too many are facing significant health disparities. These elders are more likely to confront mortality at a younger age, and have higher mortality rates due to alcoholism, diabetes and suicide than the general population. These elders are also more likely to live in poverty and lack access to health care.