People & Places

The Deeper Dig: When Vermonters struggle with social isolation

Marilyn Siple, left, and Jan Leo play Bingo at the Heineberg Community Senior Center in Burlington on Tuesday, November 26, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Data shows that a range of Vermonters report feeling socially isolated, but elderly people are at a higher risk. According to the Vermont Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey, eight percent of Vermonters say they rarely or never get social and emotional support. For residents over 65 years old, that number rises to 13%.

Advocates for Vermont seniors say several factors lead to social isolation: transportation options are limited throughout the state, extreme hot or cold weather can limit access to activities, and elderly people are more likely to have health issues, such as hearing or vision loss, that make participation in community events more difficult.

Isolation can cut across class lines and affect urban and rural Vermonters alike. “Social isolation, of course, is different from loneliness,” said Marichel Vaught, program director of the Community of Vermont Elders, or COVE. “You could be in a community with lots of people and be socially isolated still.”

Vaught said local solutions, like community senior centers, provide positive opportunities to encourage people to get out of their homes and connect with others. But, she said, everyday personal interactions can make a difference too.

“We see a child on the street, we’re more likely to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on, kiddo?'” she said. “Whereas you see an older person by themselves on the street, we just assume nothing. So sometimes even just acknowledging somebody can bring them closer into the world.”

On this week’s podcast, Vaught describes how COVE is working to connect Vermont seniors to their communities. Beth Hammond, director of the Heineberg Senior Center in Burlington, discusses the challenges of reaching out to isolated people in Vermont’s largest city. And VTDigger’s Erin Petenko breaks down the trends that reveal the prevalence and the consequences of social isolation.


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**Podcast transcript**

This week: if you’re feeling lonely, you’re not alone. Data shows that a wide range of Vermonters report feeling socially isolated. That’s particularly true for the elderly. Advocates for Vermont seniors are working on localized solutions — but they say a broader cultural shift is due.

Our reporter Erin Petenko has more. 

Erin Petenko: I came to the Heineberg Senior Center in Burlington on a Tuesday afternoon. People had sat down at little tables with these big elaborately designed bingo boards…

Bingo announcer: Your first number is G46. 

Erin Petenko: And they had this classic light up, making little dings as you hit the right numbers on the ball.

Bingo announcer: Next number, N39. 

Crowd: Bingo!

Erin Petenko: The caller would call out the different numbers, and you’d get people hovering over their bingo card and just waiting for the opportunity to put a number down. 

So this is serious bingo. 

Erin Petenko: Very serious. Yes, I could not interrupt a single person to talk about the topic I was looking into, senior isolation, until the break time, when people kind of calmed down and went to go grab another Doritos bag. 

Beth Hammond: Thanks for coming. 

What brought you to the senior center in the first place? 

Erin Petenko: Well, I was looking into the problem of social isolation among older Vermonters. And I had heard from the director of the center that a lot of what they do is combat people’s loneliness or isolation by bringing them into a community and giving them access to activities and events.

VTDigger is underwritten by:

Beth Hammond: So, we are one of the few independent senior centers in Vermont. Most senior centers are part of the city… 

Erin Petenko: They have exercise classes. 

Beth Hammond: It’s a program for balance and muscle tone. 

Erin Petenko: So kind of pilates? 

Beth Hammond: Yeah, between pilates and Tai Chi. It kind of meshes together. 

Erin Petenko: They have learning opportunities, and just fun stuff like bingo.

Bingo announcer: 23…and 8…good bingo!

Erin Petenko: Social isolation is a little-known, major problem among Vermonters. Beth, the director of the center, said that she saw a lot of people coming in to — you know, maybe they don’t want to admit that they’re isolated, so they start off as volunteers. But they slowly become really involved in the community and attend a lot of the events, because it’s their way of getting out and getting friends and seeing people. Maybe something that they don’t normally have in their everyday lives. 

Beth Hammond: It’s shyness. It kind of goes back to not wanting to go into the cafeteria, you know, when you’re in high school, by yourself. It’s the same as here, just getting people in the door and meeting the friends. A lot of our participants start as volunteers, because it’s easier to do that alone. And then they become participants.

When you say that social isolation among seniors is a major problem, what leads you to say that? What statistics point to a high rate of social isolation here in Vermont?

Erin Petenko: Okay, so there aren’t a ton of specific surveys or data collection, things that talk about this specifically. But the general mental health survey that goes out to Vermonters every year shows that older Vermonters are at a much higher risk of being socially isolated. They say that they’re not getting the social and emotional support that they need. And this is also a big problem among people with disabilities. 

Something like 8% of Vermonters overall say that they feel socially isolated. But 17% of disabled Vermonters say they aren’t getting the right level of emotional or social support. 

Beth Hammond: You know, there’s no boundaries to loneliness and isolation. There’s just no boundaries, no demographic that is not affected by it. 

Erin Petenko: Now, data does show that low income Vermonters are slightly more likely to say they’re not getting emotional or social support. But it really depends on your life circumstances, you know, where you are in that cycle. Even wealthy Vermonters can lose a family member or have to move away from their home. Especially if you have health problems that prevent you from doing different things. 

Beth Hammond: We have folks coming up here who are quite independently wealthy, but they still risk loneliness, isolation, because it just — emotional issues, transportation. That’s a huge issue around here. 

Erin Petenko: We just have the basic geography of being a really rural state with a really hard winter. That is something that makes it a lot harder for seniors to get out and about, especially if they have any kind of health problems that makes it hard for them to drive or hard for them to see or hear. 

Beth Hammond: There really isn’t enough transportation for aging community members to get to us — or even appointments. 

Erin Petenko: One thing that she brought up is, even though Burlington is such an active and engaging city, relative to maybe other major cities, it doesn’t have a lot of public transportation. So a lot of people end up walking to the center, which is physically a problem for certain people — not just from the cold, but heat waves can lead to a lot of people that have to sit out, or can’t go to the senior center for the day, because it’s just too hot to walk. 

When you did get a break in the bingo game at the Heineberg Senior Center, you talked to some folks there about what they’re experiencing. What did you hear from them? 

Erin Petenko: In the senior center, a lot of them said that they were probably less isolated than the people that weren’t there, because they were able to get there and participate in activities. But they also did mention some problems or factors that drove them there in the first place. 

Older Vermonters are more likely to have lost someone in their life. Maybe they had family members that have moved away. Maybe they have moved into a nursing home or senior housing. So they’re living away from the community that they have spent a lot of their lives in. And that can really make it hard to form new networks and new opportunities. And if you compound that with physical problems that you develop as you age, it can be really isolating. 

Senior center member: I think that people who are caring for — whether it be a spouse or a partner or anyone with an illness — it can be very lonely. Because only someone in the same circumstances can fully realize what they’re going through.

Erin Petenko: I’ve heard from a lot of advocates and community members that as you get older, you start to get segregated a little bit from other age groups. Like, there might not be as many programs that you feel comfortable attending, because they’re geared around younger Vermonters and what their interests are and what their abilities are. Not every older Vermonter wants to go to the bar each night. Maybe the main activity people do in the area is skiing, and you don’t want to ski, or you can’t ski. So that can also be isolating as you get older. 

Senior center member: You know, isolation leads to loneliness sometimes, which leads to depression, which means you do not get over an illness as quickly as you could if you were not lonely and depressed. So it has ramifications much more broad than just that little old lady, you know, that image that people have of a little old lady sitting at home alone. It’s much, much more than that.  

Erin Petenko: Being regularly socially isolated is as bad for you as smoking 17 cigarettes a day in terms of total life outcomes and your likelihood of dying. It can be really debilitating. It can have serious physical health effects because of your stress levels, because of your mental health, because of your likelihood of getting exercise, of getting out of doors. It can have an effect on all those things. And the really sad part is the worse your mental health is, the harder it is for you to go out and interact with people. So it can kind of be a cycle that you get trapped in, and it can be hard to break that cycle.

We’ll hear from senior advocates about solutions to social isolation when we come back.

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Erin, you’ve talked to some other folks who work directly on this issue, identifying challenges and working on solutions. What did they tell you?

Erin Petenko: I spoke to two people from the Community of Vermont Elders, Marichel Vaught and Anita Hoy. And a lot of what they do is try to reach people who are living in really remote areas — some of whom say that they’re happy to live in those remote areas, and really don’t need a ton of socialization. And that’s fair, a lot of people say they moved to Vermont to get away from people. But they pointed out that a lot of those seniors no longer can do those things, even if they want to. They just don’t have the option. And as they slowly dial back on the little socialization they have, they go from being isolated by choice to being isolated by life circumstances, and that’s when it becomes tough. 

Marichel Vaught: How do you combat social isolation? You can’t force somebody who doesn’t want to leave their house to leave their house. 

Erin Petenko: Since I put out a call on social media asking people to reach out to me if they want to share, I’ve gotten a lot of emails from people saying, Oh, it’s not really a problem in Vermont because we choose to be isolated. What do you have to say to that? 

Marichel Vaught: It is a problem when there are issues happening that people need to be made aware of. Yes, there are people that choose to be socially isolated. They choose to live in or stay in a rural community or their home. They want to age in place, they want to age on the farm they grew up on.

But the issue becomes, in this day and age, there are so many things happening where older Vermonters are the target, such as scams and fraud, and financial exploitation. There’s a lot of people out there taking advantage of people living in social isolation. And those people aren’t necessarily aware of what’s happening. They are also not aware of the services that are available to them, not only statewide, but right in their own community. So that’s where the issue is, is getting specific services for folks to help them age safely.

Erin Petenko: One thing Anita mentioned that I thought was kind of interesting is that this problem makes seniors a lot more likely to fall victim to a scam, like a romance scam, or a telephone scam. If you really want to talk to someone and you haven’t been around people for a while, it makes it a lot harder for you to resist someone who’s friendly or outgoing and is listening to you. And then, they kind of get manipulated into the financial fraud or whatever. 

Marichel Vaught: And the reasons why they do that — the common one is because that person emails me or talks to me every day. That person has a one on one relationship with me every day, even though it’s not a person necessarily that they’re speaking with, or the person they think they’re speaking with. And sometimes in the back of their heads, they know it’s not a real person, but they’re of sound mind and say, it’s my money, I can do what I want. And again, this person is the only one that reaches out to me. So, you know, that shows me that community needs to reach out to this person, or to somebody before they get to that point. 

How does the urban/rural divide break down here? What did they tell you about what it’s like working with people specifically in rural parts of the state? 

Erin Petenko: Obviously, being in a rural area kind of limits the amount of things going on around you. And living in a rural area, there really isn’t a ton of transportation options beyond cars. So that can be a really tough barrier for people. But even in the middle of Burlington, you can be lonely. If you can’t leave your apartment, or if you have nowhere to go when you leave your apartment because there aren’t activities that you feel comfortable in, or that are geared to you. 

Marichel Vaught: Social isolation, of course, is different from loneliness. Loneliness is the feeling. Social isolation is the physical being. Because you could be in a community with lots of people and be socially isolated still.

In speaking, my personal conversations with older Vermonters that I work with in places like Burlington, where there seemed to be a lot of activities, a lot of places to walk to, they feel socially isolated because there aren’t a lot of activities in that area for them for their age range. They walk outside and it’s UVM. There’s a lot of services for students. A lot of the activities they see are geared towards younger people. And so they stay away from those activities, and tend to just stay within their community. 

Erin Petenko: I spoke to one person — not in the Burlington area, but — I spoke to one person who suffers from frequent migraines. And one of the things she said is, even when she goes to events, people might not understand what her health problems are, or understand why she has to leave early, or might not be able to attend the full length of an event. So if you’re suffering from a disability or a health problem, even having access to those events might not be enough. 

Hearing loss. Another issue that might isolate you, even when you’re around people, is if you can’t hear the people around you. It makes it a lot harder to approach people and makes it a lot harder to talk to people. So even in the midst of a crowd you can be isolated. 

Marichel Vaught: People say join this softball team join, you know, drive over here. Go to this community center. Go to this art workshop. It’s also a matter of accessibility, physical accessibility. If you’re visually impaired, you know, how am I going to—

Erin Petenko: See the softball?

Marichel Vaught: Right, you know, something like that. I think that’s something we need to think about is that not everything that we do personally is not what everybody else wants to do. 

It sounds like there’s a whole range of issues that can lead someone to turn into a path of social isolation. How do advocates try to develop solutions for this? It seems like such a broad problem to get around. 

Erin Petenko: I think that it’s been mostly handled on a local or community basis. A lot of the advocates I talked to gave examples of communities they think are handling it really well. Maybe they have a really high quality senior center or a program where people can just get together for tea time and talk to each other about their lives. Maybe there’s a mental health organization in the area that hosts holiday dinners or meal delivery programs, which not only help people with getting access to food, but also provide them with a friendly face to see each day. 

There doesn’t seem to be a ton of broader statewide or federal issues specifically tackling this problem. It tends to get handled through the lens of mental health or transportation or senior infrastructure. In contrast, Britain actually recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness that specifically deals with this issue on a national level, which I just thought was interesting. To see it specifically through that lens rather than other areas. 

Yeah. And it sounds like, in some ways, what these advocates are pushing for is almost kind of a cultural shift, where people try to acknowledge folks who may have these sort of invisible accessibility issues in a different way. 

Erin Petenko: Yeah, I mean, there are some systemic issues that lead people to being isolated. But there is also a solution that is individualized and personal, which is just: in your daily life, approaching the people that might be isolated or lonely and talking to them. 

Marichel Vaught: We see a child by themselves on the street, we’re more likely to say, “Hey, what what’s going on, kiddo?” Whereas you see an older person by themselves on the street, we just assume nothing. So sometimes even just acknowledging somebody can bring them closer into the world.

Erin Petenko: You know, if you have a neighbor, or the person who you see at the drugstore each day, just go up and talk to them, and make sure that they’re okay. Ask how they’re doing in their daily lives. Even that little bit of interaction can help. 

You can also volunteer for a lot of these local organizations that I’m talking about. Or if you are part of an organization, you can talk to people about new ways to make sure your organization is accessible and inclusive to differently abled Vermonters, to people of all ages and other walks of life. 

Marichel Vaught:  We’re working on this project where we’re reaching out to everybody, all members of the community, whether it be municipal workers, librarians, healthcare workers, students, caregivers, families, anybody. Everybody knows an older person in their lives. And we want them to understand what is happening and what could potentially happen as they themselves get older.

It isn’t going to solve everything. Probably not. But it’s a step. 

Erin Petenko: When I first started reporting out on this story, I just put out a basic call out on Twitter and Facebook. And I heard from a lot of people who said that, you know, if these people are lonely, if these people are isolated, why can’t they just go and fix that? I think we still see loneliness as a very individual problem, something for you to reach out and overcome, rather than as a societal issue — that we as a society need to deal with the systemic reasons that people get trapped in social isolation. 

You set out to explore this very broad topic. Then you spent a couple of weeks talking to people about it. Do you like what you’ve heard was kind of what you imagined when you set out? Or have you heard things that have changed your view on how this works? 

Erin Petenko: I guess when I first started reporting on this topic, I imagined, like, one particular kind of person who was isolated. Like someone living up in the hills, just stuck in their house all day. But really, I’ve just heard from so many different types of people, dozens of people, about the different reasons you can be socially isolated and the different ways that you can be socially isolated. It’s a really diverse problem. And even though it affects certain people a lot more than others, I think it reaches a lot more people in Vermont than we’d like to admit.

Thanks, Erin. 

Erin Petenko: Thank you.

VTDigger serves a vital role in delivering news that changes the terms of many debates. Digger reporters engage us, enlighten us and offer "real eye openers" about issues of the day.

Crea Lintilhac, VJT Board Member


Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Michael Dougherty is VTDigger’s digital editor. He is in charge of comment review, social media engagement and multimedia productions.

Dougherty is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Michael spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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