Solitude has grown into a deadly problem for hundreds of thousands of older adults living at home across the United States, a new investigation has revealed. While tragic, the extent of the crisis suggests there’s ample opportunity for traditional home care agencies and budding technology startups that provide services specifically targeting loneliness and social isolation.
In 2017, state adult protective services agencies took action in more than 142,000 cases involving “self-neglect” in older adults, according to a New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) review of federal data. Self-neglect broadly refer to when older adults become too physically weak or mentally unfit to care for themselves.
Overall, state agencies completed more than 713,000 individual investigations in fiscal year 2017. During those investigations, officials identified about 235,000 victims of abuse, including instances pertaining to older adults and those under the age of 50. Younger adults accounted for a relatively small share of that total, however.
Although elder abuse can range from physical assault to financial scams, the most common threat is self-neglect, according to NECIR. Older adults with physical or mental limitations may be at higher risk of injury due to falls. Likewise, older adults with complex health issues living alone may have trouble adhering to their medication routine or meeting their basic dietary needs.
NECIR’s review of federal data was, at times, hindered by gaps in oversight.
States have to follow federal rules for collecting data on child abuse, but there is no federal mandate when it comes to abuse and neglect of older adults. That has led to a patchwork of different policies, with some more rigorous than others, NECIR found. West Virginia, for example, only collects data on the abuse and neglect of older adults on a county-by-county basis.
Hotspots for older adult abuse and neglect appear to be — in order based on investigations per 100,000 residents — Washington, California, Missouri, Texas and Kansas.
“We’re way behind in elder abuse reporting than, for example, in child abuse reporting. It’s just a different system,” Alice Page, an adult protective services and systems developer with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, told NECIR. “There’s much more emphasis and resources that have been put into child protective services than there have been into elder abuse or abuse of adults.”
Home care steps up
Lafayette, Louisiana-based LHC Group (Nasdaq: LHCG), Cincinnati-based FirstLight Home Care and Edina, Minnesota-based Lifesprk are among the many home-based care providers that have made combatting loneliness and isolation a priority throughout their operations. LHC Group, in particular, plans to make senior isolation prevention services an increasingly important role in its home- and community-base services division.
It’s not just traditional home-base care providers that have bene tackling loneliness and isolation among older adults, though, as multiple tech startups have stepped into the space with unique solutions. They include “grandkids on-demand” startup Papa, which connects older adults to college students.
Insurance giant Humana Inc. (NYSE: HUM) has taken notice of the potential value startups such as Papa provides in reducing negative health outcomes. Humana and Papa recently agreed to test out the startup’s services in the Tampa, Florida, market.
Past research has found that socially isolated older adults and those who are lonely are more likely to be sicker, die sooner and have higher health care expenses.
Solitude currently poses a substantial threat to older adults — but it’s likely to grow in prominence and severity in coming years as America’s senior population skyrockets and the demand for home-based care services outpaces a labor supply already stretched thin.
State assistance in self-neglect cases can range from referrals to Meals on Wheels or in-home care services to cognitive assessments, according to NECIR.
NECIR is a not-for-profit news center based out of WGBH News and Boston University. NECIR’s story highlighting its investigation was co-published with USA Today.
Written by Robert Holly