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The chronic illness of isolation

May 31, 2017
by Pamela Tabar, Editor-in-Chief
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Social connectedness, a sense of purpose and the integration of physical and behavioral wellness are just as important to good senior health as nutritious food. Loneliness and social isolation may be viewed as emotional issues, but they can have monumental effects on physical health as well, explained Eric Weakly, Chief, Center for Mental Health Services at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in a recent NCOA webinar. “Social isolation is the new smoking,” he said. “It has a marked effect on physical health.”

Senior living communities should promote emotional health of residents the same way they support physical health. Yet, many professional caregivers don’t have the tools to recognize and assess at-risk individuals, he added. SAMHSA offers a free toolkit designed specifically for senior living communities on promoting mental health and preventing suicide. The kit includes sample assessments, ways to talk with residents about depression and strategies for helping residents socialize in positive ways.

Integrating behavioral health and primary care is especially important for older adults, Weakly stressed. Instead of viewing physical health and emotional health as two unrelated things, “Make behavioral health part of every conversation with families and primary care doctors. Every conversation helps reduce the social stigmas.”

One final note: The suicide risk for seniors is real. Senior living professionals need to be trained to recognize signs of distress and depression and should know what support resources are available within the local community, Weakley said. SAMHSA offers a free toolkit designed specifically for senior living communities on promoting mental health and preventing suicide.

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