The United Health Foundation and AARP Foundation are collaborating to address social isolation and food insecurity among seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The $5 million grant announced in April has helped to provide more than 3 million meals to seniors, and it will help raise awareness for AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect digital platform, which is designed to reduce social isolation among low-income people age 50 and older and promote increased connections. Connect2Affect includes a variety of resources and a self-assessment questionnaire that enables people to evaluate their own or a loved one’s risk of social isolation. The grant is also helping AARP Foundation address other immediate and ongoing needs related to COVID-19. The initiative is the latest in a more than 20-year collaboration between UnitedHealth Group and AARP.

Fittingly, the campaign to promote Connect2Affect launches on Sept. 28, which is “Good Neighbor Day,” a day encouraging Americans to connect with their neighbors. Astronaut Scott Kelly is serving as the celebrity spokesperson for the campaign; he is known for spending a record 340 days alone in space on the International Space Station. This year, AARP Foundation is specifically urging Americans to check in on their older adult neighbors on Good Neighbor Day and to work toward making it a habit.

How COVID-19 increases social isolation among seniors

Research shows that many seniors are affected by social isolation – the absence of meaningful social relationships – particularly those with low incomes. Studies have found that isolation and loneliness are worse for health than obesity, and prolonged isolation is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Similarly, older adults who describe themselves as lonely face a 59% greater risk of functional decline and a 45% greater risk of death, according to AARP Foundation.

The pandemic poses a greater risk of social isolation among seniors as stay-at-home orders leave them disconnected from communities where they may have sought support. According to a survey fielded by AARP Foundation in late August, 6 in 10 older adults report experiencing social isolation and understand it has negative consequences for physical (as well as mental) health, but only 11% of adults look to medical professionals for help.

“UnitedHealth Group is committed to serving at-risk communities during the coronavirus pandemic, and seniors suffering from social isolation and food insecurity are especially vulnerable at this time,” said Dr. Rhonda Randall, executive vice president and chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual. “We are pleased to collaborate again with AARP Foundation to meet the needs of older adults. By working together to promote Connect2Affect, we can help ensure that seniors have the essential support they need to stay healthy.”

Launched in 1961, AARP Foundation serves vulnerable people age 50 and older, with a focus on tackling senior poverty through innovative solutions that help low-income older adults build economic opportunity and social connections.

“Connect2Affect offers a vital connection for seniors who are socially isolated, whether that isolation is a regular part of their lives or a result of the pandemic,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. “We are grateful for the United Health Foundation’s generous support and active collaboration on our efforts to help older adults continue to be engaged members of their communities at all times, and especially during these difficult days.”