In his presidential proclamation designating May as Older Americans’ Month, President Joe Biden said “Older Americans are the backbone of our Nation. They have built the foundation that we all stand upon today”.

This annual celebration, first declared in 1963, provides the opportunity to not only recognize older Americans’ contributions to our society, but also to highlight challenges and reaffirm our commitment to serving older adults across the country.

This year’s theme, “Powered by Connection,” helps us focus on the profound impact that meaningful connections have on everyone’s well-being and health, including older adults. The  U.S. Surgeon General’s 2023 Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community underscores the importance of this engagement. While social isolation can have the same effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, a study in Scientific American found that strong social connections can boost a person’s lifespan by 50 percent!

The public health sector is leading in many states and communities to enhance connectedness among older adults, recognizing the value of engagement for people’s health and well-being. Many organizations are leading efforts to build inclusive neighborhoods and to include policies for mitigating social isolation into state and community health improvement plans. Public health agencies are partnering with area agencies on aging, YMCAs, or other community-based organizations to improve access to facilities and programs that provide services to older adults, particularly those in underserved communities. Some are leading efforts to pilot and expand intergenerational programs, connecting older people with younger individuals who provide training on technology, for example. Local health departments are partnering with parks and recreation, transportation, and housing colleagues to build inclusive public spaces and ensure they have adequate lighting, space, and other features to bolster safety for older adults and their families.

Trust for America’s Health’s Age-Friendly Public Health Systems 6Cs Framework offers a practical guide for public health actions to improve social connectedness:

  • Creating and leading changes in social isolation and loneliness among older adults by improving awareness of the health implications and motivating existing older adult systems and infrastructures to address social isolation.
  • Connecting multi-sector partners to strengthen ties between healthcare systems and community-based networks and resources addressing older adult social isolation and loneliness.
  • Collecting data and developing a more robust evidence base on the implications and importance of addressing social isolation.
  • Coordinating existing programs for older adults to improve screening, access and service delivery to older adults and strengthen ongoing education and training on social isolation.
  • Communicating how to translate current research into healthcare practices to support the reduction of social isolation among older adults.
  • Complementing existing aging services to reach older adults where they are to reduce social isolation.

Social engagement is not just about having someone to chat with. It’s about the transformative potential of community engagement in enhancing mental, physical, and emotional well-being. By recognizing and nurturing the role that connectedness plays, we can mitigate issues like loneliness, ultimately promoting health across the life span for all Americans.