WOBURN — Scanning recent police reports from the Massachusetts communities under her jurisdiction, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan was alarmed to spot what she called a “tragic spike” in suicides.
Fifty-two county residents had taken their lives in the first half of this year, a toll up almost two-thirds from last year. She knew that plenty of young people battle anxiety but was surprised to learn the residents’ average age was 46. A quarter were over 60.
“The numbers are dramatically higher than we’ve seen in the past,” Ryan said. Although it’s impossible to pinpoint one cause, “loneliness is definitely a factor,” she said. “Many older people are feeling disconnected from other folks in their communities.”
Ryan was zeroing in on a worsening crisis felt worldwide. In an increasingly digital and mobile era, fewer people know their neighbors, generations are divided by lifestyles and activities, and more seniors live alone than ever. It’s a recipe for the social isolation described in a study by health insurer Cigna last year that found “loneliness at epidemic levels in America.”
In June, Ryan had launched an initiative to raise awareness in Middlesex County of the loneliness plaguing the state and the nation. She invited police, firefighters, school officials, and senior activity coordinators to an organizing meeting in Newton-Wellesley Hospital’s auditorium, where she and a panel of doctors, psychiatrists, and elder affairs leaders discussed the dangers of isolation and the importance of interaction for people of all ages.
Homebound seniors deprived of human contact frequently fall prey to sweet-talking telephone and computer scammers, they said. Some reach out to local public health and safety representatives just to hear a reassuring voice at the other end of the line.
“Loneliness leads to a lot of calls to 911,” Elizabeth Chen, the new Massachusetts secretary of elder affairs, told the Middlesex County gathering at the hospital.
A recent police report from Cambridge described a scenario that’s distressingly common. A caller told authorities he had discovered the body of his longtime friend, an older man who’d been severely depressed. The caller reported getting an e-mail from a food delivery service alerting him that his friend had stopped ordering weekly deliveries of pre-made meals. Using a key he’d been given to enter the apartment, he found that the friend had taken his life in his bedroom.
Only a small fraction of older people contemplate suicide, but a growing number worldwide suffer from stress and depression, according to private and government studies.
Former prime minister Theresa May last year named a “minister for loneliness” in Britain. “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” May said. She cited “the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”
Cigna’s survey of more than 20,000 American adults showed that nearly half reported sometimes or always feeling alone, while two in five said their relationships are not meaningful. Lack of meaningful interactions can affect both physical and mental health.
Some of the strongest people recognize the need for social contact and seek it out.
Framingham resident Ellen Ziedenburg, 56, said she began attending events at the city’s senior center, called the Callahan Center, because “my doctor told me it was time to get out of the house. Every day, all I was doing was looking at the four walls, watching TV. Now I play bingo, I go to the concerts. I’ve made some friends here.”
At the Callahan Center on a recent Wednesday, a couple dozen seniors had converged for a luncheon followed by an afternoon bingo tournament.
“I come to see people,” said Joann Tierney, 76, who sat at a table with her friend Maureen Ryan, also 76, and recalled when their daughters played together as children. “I don’t like sitting around at home. I like to get out. And this is a wonderful way to socialize.”
The rise of social media has altered the lives of young people — making many feel left out of the social whirlwind documented by their digital friends — but older people are vulnerable to a different kind of loneliness, stemming from a contraction in their relationships.
Some have lost spouses, live far from children and relatives, no longer drive, or have illnesses that limit their sight, hearing, or mobility. These factors hinder social contact, leading to more stress and health problems that can shorten lifespans.
“Loneliness is a national problem, and it manifests in several ways,” said Dr. Stuart Lustig, national medical executive for behavioral health at Cigna. “We’re really in the infancy of trying to understand all the changes in society that have come up so quickly.”
Ryan, whose office is in Woburn, sees Middlesex County as a “social laboratory” for Massachusetts and beyond. It’s the most populous county in New England, with 1.6 million residents in 54 cities and towns. They range from such urban centers as Cambridge and Somerville, to bucolic suburbs including Weston and Wayland, to cities Framingham and Lowell, and rural outposts including Dunstable and Pepperell. Although the aging experiences of residents differ widely across the country, the warning signs of isolation and depression are remarkably consistent everywhere.
It’s critical to recognize “if a person is isolated, if they’re self-neglecting, if their mail is piling up, if there’s no food in their refrigerators,” Ryan said. The next step in her loneliness initiative will be programs this fall to “train the trainers.” That means identifying first responders in each community who can work with firefighters responding to calls from older people who fall or who can engage postal workers delivering mail to residents who seldom leave their homes.
Some of the most important programs to combat loneliness and establish connections can be found at senior centers across the state, which offer a wide variety of programs from concerts to educational outings. Center directors say their toughest job is often getting residents to attend. Some are shy, reluctant to venture out of their homes, or lack transportation.
Those who can attend are rewarded with company and conversation.
Sarah Cammarata, who turned 100 in June, is a regular at the Callahan Center bingo tables. She said she lives by herself and takes no prescription medications.
“My secret is drinking martinis,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye. Because her children took her car away from her as a safety precaution, Cammarata gets a ride to the center from her friend, 95-year-old Mary Boucher.
A former ballroom dancer, Cammarata lamented that she had outlived her dance partners. “I don’t have anyone to dance with anymore,” she said. “They’d have to be 90 or over.”