By KENZIE TERPSTRA
Capital News Service
LANSING – People across the nation grew familiar with social isolation during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, but social disconnection had been building since before the pandemic, according to a recent advisory.
In Michigan, efforts to combat social disconnection are underway.
The advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation and social disconnection.
Murthy said that one in two American adults reported experiencing loneliness before the pandemic’s effect of increasing isolationism.
“Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling – it harms both individual and societal health,” the advisory said. “The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
Three years after the pandemic, 34% of American adults reported feeling isolated from others, according to recent findings of a University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging. By comparison, 27% reported the same feelings in 2018..
A number of local nonprofit groups across Michigan have developed programs to address loneliness-related problems, including ones in Metro Detroit and West Michigan.
The surgeon general’s advisory laid out a six-pillar framework to establish the National Strategy to Advance Social Connection. That included strengthening social infrastructure, cultivating a culture of connection and deepening knowledge about social isolation.
Natasha Bagdasarian, the state’s chief medical executive, said community connections are an important part of fighting the loneliness epidemic.
“It’s more than just what’s been traditionally seen as health care and the role of health care,” Bagdasarian said.
Bagdasarian said the next steps for the Department of Health and Human Services following the surgeon general’s advisory are to look into the epidemic and allocate resources from both the state and federal governments.
Last month, iMPROve Health, a Grand Rapids-based nonprofit that works to improve health care, hosted a conference in Livonia on the issue, Social Isolation Summit: An Intergenerational Approach.
The summit brought together experts in social isolation and loneliness to discuss potential ways to combat social disconnection and highlight related programs.
Barbara Link, a senior quality consultant and a leader of iMPROve’s social isolation project, said the organization received funding from the Michigan Health Endowment to initiate a program to reduce loneliness among older adults.
iMPROve Health’s program is an innovative pilot to curb loneliness, Link said
“We did a little bit of research and found that many people, specifically in rural communities, access and see their pharmacist much more frequently than their primary care physician,” Link said.
The project trains local pharmacists to screen older adults for social isolation, which includes a questionnaire for their customers. If the screenings discover a problem, the pharmacist could refer them to a local senior service agency, Link said.
The program was piloted in St. Clair County and has expanded into Wayne, Macomb and Ionia counties. Eight pharmacies and five senior service agencies contributed to the program, according to Link.
Link said the organization is developing a toolkit to aid other pharmacies in implementing the program, among other projects to fight loneliness.
One such program, Lori’s Hands in Metro Detroit, receives client referrals from health care agencies and community organizations. The program builds partnerships among college students and community members with chronic illnesses.
The Wayne County-based Hearken project, implemented by the Senior Alliance, is for people 60+ years old experiencing social isolation and unaddressed mental health problems. It identifies loneliness through assessment, sharing resources and community engagement.
Link said research shows that young adults and youth also feel the effects of social isolation, sometimes more so than older adults. That recognition has inspired an intergenerational approach.
The approach “builds a foundation for both generations to feel connected with each other,” Link said. “It has a strong impact in reducing social isolation and loneliness for both young people and older adults.”
MiGen, an organization that provides services, advocacy and connection for LGBTQ+ adults 45 years and older, has implemented its own intergenerational program called MiStory.
MiStory is a monthly virtual event in which older participants pass along wisdom and comradery to younger ones by sharing their own experiences.
“Intergenerational storytelling has been shown to be important to LGBTQ+ younger and older adults in terms of positive psychosocial identity and cultural connection,” Link said. “There’s a strong need for these sorts of projects out there.”