Can Affordable Housing Help Cure Loneliness?

Alisha's Blog | April 29, 2015

Demographic and income trends have created a pressing need for more affordable housing. But in addition to addressing a growing economic issue, affordable housing could also help address a public health problem: loneliness.

It wasn’t my finest moment.

I was yelling at my mom over the phone. And I was really angry.

I told my mom that there was nothing I could do about her being lonely. If she never left her house, that was her fault. What could I do from 700 miles away?

Truth be told, I had been worried about my mom since my grandmother passed away, not too long before this conversation took place.

My mom is a bit of an introvert and doesn’t tend to seek out social opportunities. Caring for my grandmother had given her a purpose. Now, she seemed a bit lost.

Loneliness: A Public Health Problem

A recent article in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) convinces me that I was right to be worried. The article identified loneliness as a public health issue.

The authors cite multiple studies linking loneliness with several negative health outcomes, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, disability, cognitive decline and depression. They suggest that these conditions may, in turn, drive a need for health care and could be linked to higher health care utilization.

Interestingly, the article also cited research suggesting a direct link between loneliness and health care utilization. These studies found that socially isolated individuals are more likely to seek medical assistance just so they can have social interactions.

Loneliness is not just a problem for older adults, but its prevalence is high among the older population. An estimated 1 in 3 older adults in the U.S. reports being lonely. 

Older adults experience changes that can raise their risk for social isolation and loneliness. Like my mom, they may have lost family and friends. Their economic resources may decline later in life, or they may experience functional decline.

People don’t tend to think of loneliness as a public health issue. But, according to the AJPH article, the mortality risk for loneliness is comparable to the mortality risk associated with smoking—and higher than the mortality risks associated with either physical inactivity or obesity. 

Affordable Housing: An Answer to Loneliness?

Loneliness is one of the main reasons I want my mom to move to an affordable housing property when she stops working. I think the opportunities for social interaction and community-building opportunities that these settings offer could be invaluable for her.

My mom is a natural-born helper. Her introverted nature makes it hard for her to seek out social situations. But when social opportunities present themselves, she jumps right in.

That’s what happened when my grandmother lived in a nursing home. My mom didn’t just visit my grandmother. She stopped by other rooms to say hello to my grandmother’s neighbors. She went shopping for residents when they needed something at the store.

I could see my mom treating her future affordable housing neighbors the same way. And she wouldn’t be the only one. I’ve met lots of residents of affordable housing properties who welcome the opportunity to do good deeds for their friends and neighbors.

Residents of an affordable housing property operated by the Portland Housing Authority in Oregon run an active support exchange program. One neighbor takes people to the grocery store, for example, while another cooks meals.

I once met a resident at a Presbyterian Senior Living property in Harrisburg, PA, whose daughter has multiple sclerosis. The resident’s neighbor periodically drove her to visit her daughter in a nursing home. The neighbor would take his newspaper along for the visit, and tell the resident to stay as long as she wanted.

Affordable housing communities also provide myriad opportunities for social butterflies to thrive. I smile each time I recall the 2 women I saw cracking up over a game of pool while a row of men sat stoically hunched over several nearby chessboards at a Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly property in Boston. I’ve encountered similar scenes in many of the properties I’ve visited.

Opportunities for Engagement

I know that loneliness is not just about being alone. So I recognize that simply living in a housing property with other people won’t necessarily fix loneliness. 

All the same, though, congregate living does create the opportunity for older adults to participate in engaging activities that connect them with others, whether it is for fun or to find a higher purpose in life.

No one would dispute the fact that demographic and income trends have created a pressing need for more affordable housing. But in addition to addressing a growing economic issue, affordable housing could also help address a public health problem.

Using affordable housing to address loneliness could improve quality of life for many older adults—including my mom. That alone would make it a win-win for many families.

The fact that affordable housing could also help reduce health care spending to treat loneliness-related health complications should also convince policymakers that we need more of it.