One of the most precious people in my life growing up was my paternal grandmother. Her name was Catherine, and her sisters and brothers called her Kitty.
Kitty was born in 1911, one of nine children, and lived her early life on a sugarcane farm near Donaldsonville, Louisiana. She married her next-door neighbor in 1934. My father, her only child, was born in 1938. Her husband, Carroll II, worked during the Great Depression anywhere he could, including building out the levees after the 1927 flood on the Mississippi River, sweeping the floors at the railroad station, and pumping gas.
My Dad (Carroll III) grew up in a loving household, where his mom doted on him, and he was surrounded by cousins. In 1958, Carroll II died very young, leaving Kitty a widow and Carroll III fatherless at 19 years old. He met my mom and married her in 1960. I was born in ’61, followed by four more children. Kitty lived two blocks away from us growing up, and the five kids in my family, plus my dad, were her whole world. She worked until her mid-70s, never re-married and lived as a widow until 1998 when she died at 86 years old.
Why am I regaling you with my family’s history?
Because by the mid-1980s, all of Kitty’s grandkids (including me) had grown up and left town, and she had retired from her job as a bookkeeper for a printing company. At that time, Kitty became very isolated and lonely. Always a very robust, independent (ornery!) woman, Kitty’s cognitive function went downhill really quickly after she retired and the grandkids were gone.
She didn’t have a big circle of friends, and she didn’t belong to any clubs; she just had work and grandkids. When those ended, her decline into dementia was really, really fast. It scared me and my parents. And constantly left me wondering if her social isolation, her loneliness, her lack of purpose and meaningful interaction with others, had contributed to her rapid mental decline. She spent her last few years in rapidly declining physical and mental health in a nursing home and hospital, recognizing no one as her dementia took over.
I’ve revisited this story just recently because I’m now being bombarded with research about the negative health effects of loneliness and social isolation.
Did you know around 35% of adults aged 45 and older are considered lonely?
Did you know recent research funded by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) shows that retired folks who are socially isolated show a 40% increased risk of dementia?
Did you know that socially isolated people are only HALF as likely to successfully control chronic health conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar? As our chief medical officer, Dr. Vindell Washington put it, “Social isolation is fertilizer for chronic diseases.”
Did you know that social isolation increased the risk of premature death from EVERY CAUSE for EVERY RACE of people studied? Look, this article is even titled “Loneliness a bigger killer than obesity.”
Turns out, our suspicions about why Kitty declined as she did might well have been true.
So, what the heck are we going to do about it now?
As a company, Blue Cross has partnered with some powerful healthcare organizations to launch our latest NOLA Healthcare Innovators Challenge, and it all centers on these issues and using technology to help combat social isolation and loneliness.
Let’s learn more about the problem right here: