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Combating social isolation in older adults: What works?

Combating social isolation among older Americans is a public health imperative that will only become more critical in the years ahead.

During a recent trip to Australia I learned about Men's Shed, a nationwide organization that supports good health through participation in nearly 1,000 sheds in communities around the country. The organization has been developing in Australia for over two decades.  Participants work on projects and, in doing so, overcome social isolation and, hopefully, improve their health practices and knowledge.

The mission statement explains: "Most men have learned from our culture that they don't talk about feelings and many do not take an interest in their own health and well-being. … Probably because of this, many men are less healthy than women, drink more, take more risks and suffer more from isolation, loneliness and depression."

Academic studies of Men's Shed have found a positive effect on health promotion. One research group, found that Men's Shed provides a site of enablement and inclusion for men with long-term disabilities. There are Men's Sheds in other countries and they are beginning to be developed in the United States. The need to combat social isolation is worldwide.

Women are welcome at most of Australia's Men's Sheds, and there are Women's Sheds as well, although they are not as numerous.  The women's sheds focus on empowerment and practical skills training as well as health empowerment.

Future studies will have to determine the health impact of Men's Shed in the U.S. and of other activities designed to combat social isolation and promote health.  Whatever the benefits, the fact remains that social isolation is a critical public health problem, especially for older adults. Social isolation is also linked to increased mortality.

And the opposite is true; The National Institute on Aging (NIA), a part of the National Institutes of Health, finds that "research suggests a positive correlation between social interaction and health." The NIA website also lists the benefits of an active lifestyle and social activities that help seniors avoid social isolation, along with links to organizations supporting volunteer and other activities.

The American population is aging and becoming more diverse. Combating social isolation among older Americans is a public health imperative that will only become more critical in the years ahead.

It is undeniable that poverty is a critical factor in social isolation and poor health, and a severe problem for many older Americans, with over 25 million Americans over 60 living in poverty. But according to the National Council on Aging, that should not prevent us from examining community-based options for supporting healthy aging that connect individuals to the resources they need. We know that Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP and other programs reduce poverty. Let's find out what is successful in reducing social isolation and seeing how we can enhance both income-support and health-support programs.

Janet Golden is a professor of history at Rutgers University-Camden.