Roughly 2.5 million rural Americans (about 7 percent of the total rural population) report having no friends or family nearby to rely on, according to a recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. An additional 14 million rural residents say they only have a few people. The combination of geographic and social isolation can take a toll on both physical and mental health. In Maine, with its relatively small, aging and far-flung population, the problem can be particularly acute.
A 2016 report titled “Reducing Social Isolation in Maine” states that “for older adults, isolation and loneliness can be a predictor of poor health, especially depression, other mood disorders, anxiety, and alcohol and drug abuse.” Involvement in volunteer work, civic or religious organizations and regular contact with friends can help stave off loneliness. But services and social opportunities are limited in many rural areas, and accessing them can be challenging for people who are no longer driving.
According to the report, one participating community in surveying its residents found that healthcare access or lack thereof was not the major factor influencing whether people moved into assisted living or nursing homes. Instead, community members reported the decision was more often affected by issues with maintaining living conditions, transportation, caregiver support and social isolation. With the high cost of nursing care and the shrinking number of nursing homes in rural Maine — not to mention the objective of improved well-being for older Mainers — it makes sense to keep people in their homes for as long as possible while ensuring their safety and connection to the greater community.
Luckily there are several organizations on Mount Desert Island working toward that goal. Island Connections addresses a practical need, transportation, while also creating an opportunity for meaningful, informal social connections. Volunteers sign up to drive program participants — called “neighbors” in the group’s lingo — to medical appointments, the grocery store, etc. The Mount Desert Nursing Association, which now serves all of MDI, provides home care as well as preventative health and educational programs. Bar Harbor has an Age Friendly Committee working on how to improve services and infrastructure. And the Jesup library, YWCA MDI and Island Connections team up to sponsor an “Age By Design” program series.
These and other resources provide a different kind of social security. Supporting aging in place – but not alone – is both practical and compassionate.