Local commentary

Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly echoes U.S. Surgeon General advisory

Leslie Bek

One year ago, the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy released a new Surgeon General Advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country.

As our nation’s doctor, the surgeon general’s mission is to protect, promote, and advance the health and safety of our nation. Surgeon General’s Advisories are public statements that draw our attention to a critical public health issue and provide recommendations for how it should be addressed.

“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues,” said Dr. Murthy.

I haven’t thought about what our surgeon general has had to say since the 1980s. I was working in local public health then and U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop became a household name for his work related to tobacco use and the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Today, decades past, I am at a new point in my career focusing on older adults. The actions of the U.S. Surgeon General have again taken prominence in my professional mission.

Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly Upper Michigan Chapter is a volunteer-based organization committed to relieving isolation and loneliness among the elderly. Our mission is in direct alignment with this advisory. It contains both bad news and good news.

The physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases risk of premature death by more than 60%. Lacking social connection is as dangerous as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

More bad news. In addition to our physical health, loneliness and isolation are significant factors in mental health challenges. In adults, the risk of developing depression among people who indicate feeling lonely often is more than twice that of people who rarely or never feel lonely.

The advisory states that while the epidemic of loneliness and isolation is widespread and has profound consequences for our individual and collective health and well-being, there is a medicine hiding in plain sight: social connection. That is the good news.

LBFE programing provides social support for lonely, isolated individuals 60 years and over. Services include our signature Friendly Visiting program which pairs a visiting volunteer with an elder for one-on-one social connections. Throughout the year, LBFE is engaging isolated elderly neighbors by offering special gatherings for socialization, holiday meals, transportation to medical appointments, firewood assistance, medical aid equipment loan closet, a food pantry and countless volunteer interactions.

Every one of us is a part of the bigger picture in the places that we live. The advisory reminds us that social connection is beneficial for individual health and improves the resilience of our communities. It’s been proven that where residents are more connected with one another they fare better on several measures of population health, community safety, community resilience when natural disasters strike, prosperity, and civic engagement.

Dr. Murthy says that it’s important to take 15 minutes each day to contact a friend or relative. He asks us to make it a priority, and if that means putting a calendar reminder in your phone or making a note, then do so. Relationships cannot thrive unless they are nurtured.

I’m suggesting you take another few minutes to connect with Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly. It could be one of those life-changing moments. An action you take thanks to the nation’s doctor.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Leslie Bek is program manager, LBFE Upper Michigan Chapter in Marquette County. Contact leslie.bek@littlebrothers.org; 906-273-2575. LBFE Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw, Ontonagon Counties Hancock Administration office 906-482-6944. houghton.littlebrothers.org. For more U.S. Surgeon General Advisory information contact SurgeonGeneral.gov.


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