Photo by Mike Yoder
New program promotes activity and social engagement for seniors
By Marvel Williamson. Senior Resource Center for Douglas County
An invisible but significant health risk is on the rise among Douglas County’s older population. As people age, their mobility decreases, retirement alters lifestyle, friends die, independence diminishes, and relatives can become more distant. As a result, seniors gradually withdraw and become less active mentally and physically, placing them at considerable risk for poor health. With more people choosing to stay in their own homes as they age, it requires a conscious effort to avoid social isolation and maintain physical activity.
Activity and social engagement are critical for slowing advancement of chronic conditions, assuring strength for daily activities, and promoting good mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by age 75 about one in three men and one in two women engage in no physical activity. Resulting loss of strength and stamina reduces the ability to live independently, increases the likelihood of falls and fractures, and worsens chronic disease.
The Senior Resource Center for Douglas County, with partial support from the United Way of Douglas County, is launching a program to help address these risks among low-income seniors in particular. By engaging them in activities to promote health and decrease isolation, seniors and communities will benefit.
University of Chicago research has found that loneliness in older adults also results in a lowered immune response and more inflammation. All of these physical and mental health outcomes create burdens on public health resources and reduce the quality of life for older people.
One contributing factor is that people are living longer. Furthermore, older people who do not or cannot keep up with society’s increasing reliance on electronic communication are even more vulnerable. The risk for social isolation is mushrooming, and loneliness has become epidemic.
A University of California at San Francisco study has found that lonely people 60 and older have a 45 percent increased risk of death and a 59 percent greater risk for mental and physical decline. Loneliness also contributes to higher cortisol levels, heart disease and diabetes. Mental health benefits of activity and social engagement are numerous because loneliness and isolation are associated with depression, distorted reality, lower self-esteem and decreased cognitive function.
Isolation is now the top predictor of early death among seniors. It is “as powerful as smoking or alcoholism,” according to a recent Harvard study of adult development. This is especially pronounced here, because the over-60 population of Douglas County is growing more rapidly than in any other Kansas county. It will be more than 24 percent higher in 2019 than it was in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections and the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research forecasts.
In Douglas County, many opportunities exist for seniors to engage, but these activities are financially inaccessible for many, because most seniors experience loss of income as they age. Many seniors live at or near the poverty level.
To provide the Douglas County program, “Senior Engagement Scholarships,” the resource center will collaborate with partner organizations to provide fitness, recreation, education and cultural opportunities through scholarships for low-income seniors. This united communitywide approach will more efficiently use resources to address public health by providing ways to help prevent, delay or mitigate the effects of inactivity and social isolation.
Seniors who are interested will apply to the Senior Resource Center for the engagement scholarships. Eligibility criteria are that a recipient must be:
- At least 60 years old.
- A Douglas County resident.
- Meet one of these financial conditions: on Medicaid, live in subsidized housing, have a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program card, or have a low income.
To promote attendance and create a sense of ownership, recipients will pay a greatly reduced portion of the event cost. As appropriate for the activity or event, caregivers or companions also may qualify for the scholarship.
Eligible seniors who need transportation to events may be served by SRC’s Senior Wheels program. Operating Monday through Friday, Senior Wheels provides rides to seniors and caregivers throughout Douglas County.
SRC has already secured significant partners for this project: LMH Health, Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and the Lied Center of Kansas.
The goal of this initiative is for seniors to increase their physical activity and social engagement. This will help them decrease the impact of the high risk behaviors of inactivity and isolation that lead to poorer physical and mental health and even early death.
Marvel Williamson is executive director of the Senior Resource Center for Douglas County. Call the center, 785-842-0543, for more information.