By Kenzie Ferguson

This post is the first of a four-part series where we will dive into the topic of social isolation as a determinant of health.

Humans are social creatures. As a species, we rely on cooperation and community to survive and thrive. As a result, our society is built around finding places and ways to connect. Social isolation occurs when those connections stop, or those relationships end. Right now, most of us are experiencing some degree of social isolation due to the pandemic and social distancing in most cities around the world, but that forced isolation will end with a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19. Eventually, our lives will return to some form of normal, and we’ll be able to see and embrace family and friends. Sadly, for many older adults, social isolation is not tied to the pandemic and won’t end with a vaccine or treatment.

You may be wondering why the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation is interested in social isolation. What does this have to do with oral health? It’s simple: older adults with oral issues have significantly higher risks of being lonely than their counterparts without any oral problems. On top of that, many older Americans do not have access to oral health care to begin with, making them particularly vulnerable to complications from gum disease and tooth decay. We are working on a program to help remove barriers to oral health care for older adults that will roll out in 2021. In the meantime, we are conducting research and identifying partners to better understand the issues facing older adults that create those barriers.

Many factors contribute to social isolation, especially among older adults. It can be the loss of a spouse or partner while being childless or having children who live far away. It can be frailty or lack of mobility that prohibits someone from going out and engaging in social activities. It can be a lack of access to transit or being on a fixed income that doesn’t allow for paying for ride services. Or, it can be a conscious choice where someone chooses to withdraw from others to avoid feeling like a burden.

Social support, also referred to as social cohesion, is considered a determinant of health. Social determinants of health are often defined as the conditions in the places where we live, work, learn and play that shape health outcome. Research out of the National Institutes of Health is showing that having community and social support – or not having it – affects our health.

In talking with our partners at Meals of Wheels San Francisco, we learned about how isolated many elderly individuals in our own Bay Area community are and what a huge difference something as simple as a phone call or a meal delivery can have on an individual. For many Meals on Wheels’ clients, those deliveries are the only interaction they have with another human. We feel like this is an area where we can have an impact – through both our philanthropic efforts with organizations in our communities as well as our employee volunteering program. But first, we wanted to educate ourselves on the issue. So, in the coming weeks, we will explore social isolation’s effect on overall health, its relationship to oral health and what is being done or can be done to address it.

Check back every Tuesday for the next three weeks to read more.