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New report looks at isolation in South Carolina's senior population

Almost four out of every 10 South Carolinians aged 65 or older live alone. Just about the same percentage have a disability. And the numbers get worse among traditionally marginalized groups.
Ewan Yap
Almost four out of every 10 South Carolinians aged 65 or older live alone. Just about the same percentage have a disability. And the numbers get worse among traditionally marginalized groups.

On Tuesday, the South Carolina Institute of Medicine and Public Health, in partnership with the state Department on Aging, released a report outlining the state of loneliness and isolation among South Carolina’s seniors.

Its conclusions are what IMPH Director Maya Pack hopes will be a wakeup call to residents, government leaders, and the healthcare field to pay close attention to the effects of being alone late in life.

“Social connection is a major health determinant that is not typically discussed,” Pack says. “There is substantial evidence that shows a strong correlation between social isolation and major physical and mental health challenges and their associated costs.”

According to the report, geography, disability, and socioeconomic status are major factors influencing senior isolation. Rural residents, for example, can easily be cut off from services or programs that can keep senior residents from becoming isolated. Every county in South Carolina has such services, but Pack says that for residents with limited mobility and/or limited access to a vehicle, those services can be hard to get to, without intervention from neighbors and social workers.

The need for this kind of intervention is the major recommendation of the report. Overall, IMPH recommends seven actions to address what the report’s chair, Mary Gail Douglas, calls “a widespread problem.”

  • Develop funding models to support increased programming to foster social connectedness.
  • The Institute for Engaged Aging at Clemson University should complete a study of the existing processes required of older adults at the different state-supported colleges, universities and institutions under the jurisdiction of the State Board for Technical and Comprehensive Education offering tuition-free classes to persons 60 years and older.
  • The South Carolina Department on Aging should incorporate language about social isolation and related resources into the GetCareSC website Guide to Services page to assist older adults and their caregivers with finding resources to promote social connection. 
  • The regional Area Agencies on Aging and Aging Service Providers across the state should expand Senior Companionship Programs, like the AmeriCorps Seniors Senior Companionship Program, to increase the number of trained staff and volunteers available to assist with activities of daily living to provide home visits for social connection among older adults that are homebound (1:1 social visits) and provide transportation to access programming that promotes social connection.
  • Communities should develop and/or improve safe places for older adults to gather, including increasing the number and quality of accessible and safe indoor and outdoor public spaces and centers, to meet the needs of a growing older adult population. 
  • Older adult-serving organizations should promote intergenerational programs to enrich the lives of participants, while addressing social isolation and building community.
  • The South Carolina Legislature should reinstate the South Carolina Long Term Care Council, as outlined in Section 43-21-130 in South Carolina State Code.

Pack, and IMPH Associate Director Erin Haire also say that doctors and healthcare providers should begin screening older patients for signs of isolation and to assess the risks of their becoming isolated.

PrismaHealth already has such a program in place. Prisma’s director of the continuum of care, Jennie Porth, says patients are asked simple questions, such as “When is the last time you spoke to a neighbor.” Such questions, she says, are often powerful indicators of a senior living apart from others.

Haire says, however, that IMPH is not looking to mandate anything on behalf of seniors. Many, such as her own father, she says, prefer their own company and do not want to socialize too much. What she hopes to see is awareness of the problem so that help may reach those who want to be reached and respect those who want to stay more on their own. To her, success looks like seniors “having all the opportunities that they want” for themselves.

Some key findings of the report, concerning South Carolinians aged 65 and older include:

  • 37 percent live alone (flat with the national average)
  • 35 percent live with a disability (slightly above the national average)
  • 1 in 10 live in poverty (also slightly above the national average)
  • Poverty levels among senior South Carolinians of color are disproportionate compared to white residents. Almost 22 percent of senior African-American South Carolinians live in poverty, compared to 8.5 percent of the state’s Latinx seniors, and 7 percent of the state’s white seniors. South Carolina's numbers for Black seniors is more than four points higher than the national average.
  • LGBTQ+ seniors and first-generation immigrants are especially at risk of social isolation.

Read the IMPH report here

Or read the executive summary here

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.