By Kenzie Ferguson

This is the last installment of a four-part series where we will dive into the topic of social isolation as a determinant of health and its relationship to oral health.

Over the past three weeks, we have explored social isolation as it relates to oral health and well-being. We’ve highlighted the many potential health concerns that are associated with social isolation and loneliness. We have defined the problem, and now it’s time to talk about possible solutions.

Given the mountain of research we unearthed for this series, social isolation is not a new issue. Yet the current pandemic has cast a spotlight on the matter as it has exacerbated the situation for many older adults and given younger people an appreciation for the challenges of being isolated from the rest of the world. That focus is helping to galvanize creative solutions.

Individual actions

Fortunately, there are things we all can do to help those struggling in isolation.

For example, an assisted living facility in North Carolina has made headlines by starting a pen pal program for its residents. Writing to or calling someone who is homebound and isolated is an easy way to foster a connection and brighten someone’s day – without putting them at risk for COVID-19 infection. As part of our month of service in September, we gave employees the opportunity to send letters to seniors and saw tremendous participation. You can do the same thing for older adults in your neighborhood or members of your family. There have always been volunteer opportunities in local communities where you can take an older adult grocery shopping or to appointments. Amid COVID-19, you can offer to do their shopping for them or help them get set up for telehealth appointments or video calls with family and friends. The simple act of checking in – even from six feet away or through a window – can make a huge difference.

Of course, there are organizations, like Meals on Wheels, that provide food and a human touchpoint for older adults. And with the demand for their services skyrocketing, now is a good time to explore donating or volunteering with your local food delivery charity.

Community-level actions

There is also work happening at the community level to increase social connection. Since there are many factors that can contribute to social isolation, there is not one answer for how to address it. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has funded several endeavors to tackle the issue in different ways. For example, three American cities in cold climates are looking at ways to create spaces for connection amid the frigid winter months, such as heating bus stops and organizing indoor snowball fights. Other programs seek to improve resources in communities, like education, job training and recreation opportunities that foster connection in low-income or impoverished areas.

We already know that for many people, their dentist is their most regular connection to health care. We can leverage our partners offering dental services to start exploring ways to address social isolation.

The Delta Dental Community Care Foundation pledge

We will continue to support existing partners and find new ones who are actively addressing the issue of social isolation with seniors to help improve oral health and overall health outcomes. We will explore ways to increase access to oral health care for homebound individuals. And, we will identify volunteer opportunities – virtual or in-person – and encourage our employees to participate in activities that can provide important connection for those experiencing social isolation and loneliness.

As most of us have learned at some point during the pandemic, losing our connection to others can have a serious impact on our well-being. Humans are not meant to live in isolation, and I hope we all have a new empathy for those, especially older adults, for whom this is often the norm. Though it may be a complex problem, there are things we can do to solve it together. We all can build community and connection, and perhaps our own experiences amid the disruption to our normal lives will push us to do so.

I for one am motivated to act; are you with me?