In Puerto Rico at age 17, Germán Paradi was attacked and shot in the neck, causing injuries leading to quadriplegia. As a young adult, he advocated for people with disabilities, and on Wednesday, 17 years after the violence, he talked via telephone at an APHA 2021 session on social isolation.

“People with disabilities across the ages need to be recognized as experiencing social isolation,” he said. “It is a matter of life and death to have a social connection.”

The APHA featured session, “Preventing Social Isolation Across the Lifespan,” explored strategies and interventions to help seniors, people with disabilities, young adults and anyone else feeling lonely and isolated improve their well-being.

Even before the pandemic isolated people at home and transformed social gatherings into a health risk, 60% of Americans had regular feelings of loneliness, said panelist Edward Garcia, founder and executive director of the Foundation for Social Connection.

Social isolation has been associated with negatively impacting general health and contributing to premature mortality, Garcia said. It may also have an effect on immune response and increase risk of COVID-19 infection.

We are social beings, and positive connections with others increase well-being and quality of life, said panelist Kim Van Orden, a psychologist and healthy aging researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Van Orden’s work mostly involves social isolation among older adults. She said programs involving volunteering, group projects and peer companionship show promise for this age group.

A study published in August in Clinical Gerontologist showed that community-dwelling seniors gained satisfaction interacting with robotic pets. This study, however, of which Van Orden was lead author, was observational and did not select for seniors who felt lonely.

Van Orden said that while behavior interventions can reduce loneliness and social isolation, “the bad news is we lack replication, clarity on mechanism, as many studies do not enroll people who are lonely or isolated. We don’t yet have the science to guide what exact program to suggest.”

Rico, who now lives in Philadelphia and is part of the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, said people with disabilities are not often part of the conversation on mental health or social isolation. Still, during COVID-19, he witnessed positive impacts from telehealth and online social networks in keeping people with disabilities connected.

All the panelists looked forward to more engagement and evidence-based research on the topic.

“We need a standardized measurement in isolation and loneliness,” Garcia said, “and a national strategy that supports (mental health) in communities and states.”