Cultivating connection: Addressing loneliness and isolation in older people

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Older Americans Month - an important time to recognize how loneliness and isolation impact aging populations.

Cambia Health Foundation has worked to raise awareness of the correlation between physical and mental health since its founding in 2007. Over the years, our investments have reinforced this commitment with a focus on whole-person health for people with serious illness. Whole-person health recognizes that multiple factors in a person’s life affect their health. Through our work, we’ve learned that loneliness and isolation can be detrimental to a person’s well-being. 

“Whole-person health is really taking this idea that we need to treat the whole person, not just the disease; that we need to look at the whole spectrum of the social factors that impact a person’s health, including behavioral and mental health,” said Peggy Maguire, president of Cambia Health Foundation. “For people who experience loneliness and isolation, their health can be deeply affected – we are all complicated, interconnected beings and we’re meant to be connected to others.” 

Earlier this month, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory declaring widespread loneliness as a public health epidemic. According to the report, loneliness creates health risks that are as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes daily and poses “profound threats to our health and well-being.” While the pandemic brought more attention to the issue of loneliness, the problem existed long before COVID-19. 

The impact on aging populations 

Loneliness and isolation are typically invisible hazards, worsened by a culture of stigma and shame around the topic. While the Surgeon General’s advisory addresses loneliness and isolation among all ages, older populations are especially at risk due to a variety of factors, like living alone and reduced connection and conversation due to hearing loss. The scope of people affected is staggering; more than one-third of adults age 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults age 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. 

When people have healthy social connections with others, the health benefits skyrocket including potential prevention of heart disease, stroke and dementia, as well as improved well-being and quality of life. The opposite is true as well – social isolation is associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia, 29% increased risk of heart disease, and 32% increased risk of stroke. 

Empowering Cambia employees to help 

Through volunteerism, serving on nonprofit boards and donating personal funds (with eligible donations matched by the Foundation at 50%), Cambia employees have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to many organizations that help combat loneliness and isolation. Organizations that employees have stepped up to support over the years include: 

Meals on Wheels People: In the last five years, $28,863 in donations were generated by employees to support the organization’s vision that “no senior will go hungry or experience social isolation.” In addition to employees volunteering time to serve meals at dining centers, or deliver meals and friendly visits to homebound older adults, Cambia employees have also served on the board. Kristen Erbes, Cambia’s vice president and chief compliance and privacy officer, explained why she chose to support Meals on Wheels as both a volunteer and board member. 

“I chose to serve on the Meals on Wheels board because of its mission and innovative programming,” said Erbes. “In addition to providing high-quality, nutritious food, they’ve expanded social programming to address the increased isolation experienced by many older adults, including Friendly Chats and Wellness Checks, virtual tours, and Peer-to-Peer Connections, where like-minded older adults meet via phone to connect over shared interests.”

Green Urban Lunch Box: One of Green Urban Lunch Box’s programs is hosting Free Farm Stands for older adults at local community centers. These pop-up markets empower people to connect to healthy food and their community, while also offering an opportunity for friendly connection as participants select their food. While this program invites older adults to gather in a community setting, Green Urban Lunch Box also meets people in their homes. Back-Farms pairs volunteer garden apprentices with program participants to build and maintain organic gardens in their backyards, providing a hands-on educational experience, social connection and fresh, local produce. Cambia employees have supported these efforts over the years by hosting seven projects, generating 139 total volunteer hours. 


Bridge Meadows: Bridge Meadows is an intergenerational housing community that uses the power of community to help children heal from the trauma of foster care. Elders live in the community, serving as mentors, friends and caregivers to the children and each other, forming a safety net of care and interdependence. Since 2009, the Foundation has invested more than $250,000 through grants, sponsorships and community leadership funds (a stipend program provided to Cambia employees who serve on a board). Over the years, funding has supported several operational projects at Bridge Meadows and helped enable them to expand their reach. During the pandemic, the Foundation investments were shifted to bolster human connection for participants. Bridge Meadows utilized text, phone calls and email to meet the supportive needs of the community when in-person visits were not an option. In-person visits restarted when restrictions loosened. 

Store to Door:  Based on values of nourishment, connection and dignity, Store to Door provides a volunteer-based grocery shopping and delivery service. Participants build connections with volunteers through weekly phone calls when they check in and gather their grocery lists. When items are delivered, volunteers visit with elders while stocking their kitchens with the groceries. Through several Foundation programs, including community investment dollars given by employee resource groups and community leadership funds, the Foundation has directed more than $20,000 in funding to Store to Door over the years. 

Love For Our Elders: A new partner of the Foundation, Love For Our Elders, aims to fight loneliness among elderly populations through hand-written letters. Nearly 60 Cambia employees have volunteered with the program, including Lana Branch, auditor at Cambia Health Solutions, who recently participated for the first time. “I think there are many lonely people in this world, and we should spread love to more than just the people we know,” said Branch. “I have been very fortunate with a lot of love and support in my life. I live in gratitude every day and want to pay it forward. Loneliness can lead to many bad things, including depression, anxiety, physical illness, low self-esteem and more. I hope the letters brought the recipients a smile to their faces.”

Investing in solutions

In 2022, the Foundation released a strategic vision to advance equity through whole-person health. One key area of focus is prioritizing adults age 55+, specifically investing in solutions that reduce isolation and loneliness by strengthening social connectivity, care coordination and behavioral health access within whole-person health models. These approaches have been shown to help older adults better manage their chronic conditions and improve their quality of life.

“I am incredibly grateful to organizations that are making strides in addressing loneliness and isolation among older adults,” said Maguire. “The Foundation is thrilled to increase our investments in addressing this important issue and to imagine what we can accomplish through collaboration. We believe in a community that embraces the value of people at all stages of life – the recent public attention on the risks of loneliness and isolation among the elderly makes me hopeful that, together, we can find a way to ensure older adults live and age well.”