The Essex Reporter: For seniors, local solutions to social isolation and loneliness can bring opportunities for new connections

A group of seniors stared at their bingo cards as the clacking of the bingo ball pierced an otherwise quiet room at the Essex Senior Center. 

When the winner cried bingo, everyone cheered before heading to lunch. 

Most people know that Vermont is a state populated by many older adults. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20.6% of Vermonters are estimated to be over the age of 65 as of July 1, 2022.

What is less discussed is how loneliness and social isolation — the feeling and physical manifestation of lacking social connection — affect the health of older adults.

The National Institute of Health has determined that physical illnesses such as high blood pressure and heart disease are more common in those experiencing loneliness and social isolation.

With the help of local organizations like Age Well and the Essex Senior Center, seniors can take part in community-building activities that can help them feel connected and stay healthy.

Identifying the problem

“Our healthcare system is a system of disease management,” Age Well CEO Jane Catton said. “What Age Well does is look at aging populations and try to create opportunities for them to remain healthy and independent.”

Age Well is a different kind of health organization than a traditional hospital or assisted living home. Instead of providing services at the point of a healthcare crisis, the organization provides preventative measures to keep patients in their communities.

For example, Age Well volunteers can provide transportation and help seniors run errands.

Age Well’s service area is made up of Chittenden, Franklin, Addison and Grand Isle counties, where the organization also administers its Meals on Wheels program. 

Meals on Wheels for one person costs about the same as one day in a hospital or 10 days in a nursing home, according to statistics gathered from Age Well. Catton said investing in preventing loneliness and social isolation can reduce costs for seniors and their families.

In an Aging Matters episode by Age Well, which aired on Channel 17 in December, Dr. Allan Ramsey classified loneliness and isolation as social determinants of health, along with having inadequate housing, transportation and food security.

“My colleagues are starting to recognize that if they don’t address these issues, either through referrals to community agencies, like Age Well, or a designated mental health department, I’m not going to achieve other goals that I have for keeping people’s blood pressure down or changing their habits,” Dr. Ramsey said.

Making a difference

Essex Senior Center director Nicole Mone-St. Marthe said she has noticed the positive impact her center has had on local seniors.

“The seniors that don’t live in communal housing settings often come here because they live alone,” she said. “They come because of that isolation feeling.”

Essex Senior Center is open to the broader community as well as older people in Essex and Essex Junction. It hosts a variety of activities, which in March included a memoir writing workshop, card games and drumming on exercise balls to get in shape.

Luncheons occur from 11 a.m.-noon Tuesdays and 11:30-12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays 11:30-12:30 a.m. with prices ranging from $8 to free. The senior center is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, we have members that come from Winooski, Jericho as far as Bolton,” Mone-St. Marthe said, adding that some of these communities don’t have a senior center of their own or one that provides the same services. 

“We have people who come for the social interaction, but a lot of other members come in to meet other needs,” she said, referencing the grab-and-go meals from Age Well which are provided at low to no cost.

John, visitor to the senior center last week, said he likes to go to the Wednesday luncheons and work on puzzles at the center. He and his wife often come twice a week for bingo and lunch.

“You meet a lot of people, that’s what I like about it, although there aren’t too many men,” he said. “There’s a lot of activities for seniors to do.”

Written by Jean MacBride

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