Beth Morton was at the peak of her career, wrapping up her Ph.D. in Boston. Then her occasional migraines began to hit weekly. Then daily. The splitting headaches made it impossible for her to hold down a regular 9-to-5 job as a researcher.
After finishing her degree, she moved back to her hometown in rural southern Vermont, where she began to face a different kind of problem: She was lonely.
Morton, 40, works remotely, and has a hard time attending social events or driving long distances when devastating migraines could strike without warning.
“The topic of isolation is something that has come up a lot with friends who are also chronically ill,” she said.
They’re not alone. Eight percent of Vermonters say they rarely or never get social and emotional support.
Among residents over 65 years old, that number rises to 13%, according to the Vermont Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey. Thirty-nine percent of older Vermonters live alone.
Low-income residents, disabled residents and men were also more likely to say they weren’t getting enough social support.
Some policymakers have already begun to take action. The United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness in 2018 to tackle the issue.
In Vermont, the Association of Area Agencies on Aging has organized a series of conferences, including one in September titled “Aging in Vermont: Exploring Solutions for Social Isolation.” At the meetings, gerontology leaders talked about how to get seniors more engaged in the community.
“We may think social isolation takes place in the most rural corners of Vermont, but one can be lonely or isolated even in more populated areas or in assisted living settings,” organizer Janet Hunt said in announcing the event.
Research has shown that social isolation is tied to poor mental and physical health, including a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and depression. In a state with a suicide rate that outpaces the rest of the nation, loneliness can be a matter of life and death.
“It’s really debilitating,” said Dawn Palladino, a social worker in Lamoille County.
“People who don’t have the opportunity to get out of their houses and interact with other people are much more depressed,” Palladino said. “We are hard wired to want to connect with other people.”
The United Health Foundation ranks Vermont 19th in the nation in social isolation risk for seniors, but that ranking does not take into account several factors residents cited in their struggles with loneliness — harsh winters, little access to public transportation and the sparse nature of Vermont’s rural population.
Older or disabled Vermonters are at a higher risk of social isolation for a number of reasons. A disability may make it difficult to attend events or drive. Older residents may have lost a spouse or had family members move away. They are less likely to have broadband internet that could help them connect to others online.
Older residents can also feel out-of-place or out-of-step with events and organizations designed for younger Vermonters, said Marichel Vaught, program director of the Community of Vermont Elders, or COVE, a nonprofit that works with older residents.
“A lot of the activities they see are geared toward younger people. And so they, you know, stay away from those activities,” Vaught said.
Anita Hoy, Vermont Senior Medicare Patrol project director, said the “most isolating thing I’ve ever seen” was when she was walking with an older woman in Barre after a presentation. Two men came toward them on the sidewalk, and “they literally pushed her off the sidewalk just by walking, as though she didn’t exist.”
“That’s the kind of isolation that I think older adults do face, that’s very real,” she said.
Hoy said she heard from another volunteer who said society made her feel like she didn’t have any value anymore.
“Which is so not true, because in terms of stories and life experiences, they have the best,” Vaught said.
Finding connections and community
At the Heineberg Senior Center in Burlington one Tuesday, members crowded around card tables with long, elaborately designed Bingo boards, hands hovering with their markers waiting for the caller to announce their number. Above their heads in the center’s gym and event space, a group of seniors stretched in time to instructions from coaches.
Beth Hammond, director of the center, said many new members, too shy to come alone, start off as volunteers. Soon they find themselves being part of something that gives them friendship and a reason to leave the house.
“We truly are a community here and a family,” Hammond said. “A snow day is sad because I look forward to coming in.”
Despite the center’s high attendance, Hammond said she worries about how difficult it is for members and would-be members to get there. About half drive, but others take the bus or walk, which is harder in icy conditions or during heat waves.
It’s not just Burlington: Across the state, advocates and those who work with isolated Vermonters say the lack of transportation options makes it more difficult to meet people and spend time with others.
“Transportation is a barrier to accessing all kinds of services,” said Angela Smith-Dieng, director of the State Unit on Aging. “That’s been particularly harder for older Vermonters and people with disabilities.”
Vermont and local communities have come up with creative ways to address social isolation. The Elder Care Clinicians Program visits residents in their home who need mental health care and can’t travel to a doctor’s office, Smith-Dieng said.
In Burlington, local organization HANDS plans to feed 700 people this Christmas with its meal deliveries and dinner at the Elks Lodge.
“It seems like a small thing, but it’s a really big difference,” said Megan Humphrey, executive director of the organization. Humphrey said Christmas can be a really tough holiday for lonely seniors.
Lamoille County Mental Health Services, where Palladino works, also hosts a Thanksgiving dinner for mental health patients. COVE hosts a teatime for Burlington residents. Forty-five senior centers scattered across Vermont provide classes and activities.
But Smith-Dieng pointed out that senior centers don’t receive state funding in most cases, limiting their scope in smaller communities, especially in the Northeast Kingdom. “The towns are smaller, and resources are more limited,” she said. “It can be hard to find a good space, find volunteers, that kind of thing.”
Migraine sufferer Beth Morton, 40, said she gets annoyed at people who don’t understand how hard it is for her to attend events. “It isn’t as easy as volunteering or joining a book club, etc., for some (of) us,” she said via Facebook.
But she has found some connection and community through a nonprofit — specifically, working online for a nonprofit for people with migraines. “They’re more understanding of my need to work nights, or sometimes on weekends,” Morton said.
Christina Dolan, an EMT from Brownsville, said via email that she has seen too many people place responsibility on the individual to combat their own loneliness. “That pervasive tendency to paint loneliness as a sort of moral failure or weakness of character or personality really exacerbates the problem,” she said.
“If communities don’t recognize it as a legitimate social problem, then they won’t see any need to try to provide venues for people to form social and community bonds,” she said. “And if individuals feel stigmatized or ashamed, they’ll be less likely to reach out for opportunities to connect.”
Smith-Dieng said Vermonters who want to help combat loneliness can contact the Agencies on Aging helpline. “They all have identified folks who need companionship, or need a ride, or need that helping hand,” she said.
If you need help, the National Suicide Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255 and the Vermont Crisis Text Line is available at 741741. You can also find local organizations in your area here.