New York State Senate Committee on Aging Chair Cordell Cleare today joined together with state and city officials, mental health professionals, and older adults to raise awareness about the “epidemic” of social isolation.
Today’s press conference highlighted the serious impacts of social isolation on health and mental health, as well as programs and support services available through the New York State Office for the Aging (NYSOFA) to help older adults affected by the “epidemic of loneliness.”
State Senator Cordell Cleare, Chair of the Aging Committee, stated: “My deepest thanks to NYSOFA for coming to our neighborhood to highlight the numerous innovative solutions that exist to effectively cope with social isolation. As Chair of the Senate Aging Committee, my paramount goal is to ensure that older New Yorkers are empowered every day to have access to fulfilling and spirit-raising activities from animatronic pets and technological connections to old-school games like cards, pool and chess at local Senior Centers. I am committed to fighting for even more money in the FY 2024 Budget to expand all of these worthwhile initiatives.”
“…epidemic” and an “underappreciated public health crisis.”
In May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory calling social isolation an “epidemic” and an “underappreciated public health crisis.” The data is striking. Social isolation – lack of meaningful contact with others – costs the Medicare program $6.7 billion in additional spending every year. Isolation is also a clear risk factor for illness and death. Spending on the health consequences of social isolation is comparable to arthritis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes – the public health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes daily. This risk increased substantially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of today’s press conference, Senator Cleare joined NYSOFA Director Greg Olsen in presenting animatronic pets to older adults as part of NYSOFA’s many initiatives to reduce social isolation.
“…provided 24,000 companion robotic pets to older adults…”
NYSOFA’s Animatronic Pet Project
NYSOFA’s animatronic pet project has provided 24,000 companion robotic pets to older adults throughout New York State. These plush, “lifelike” robotic pets are designed to make realistic sounds and motions, providing comfort and companionship to individuals. In a pilot study, NYSOFA found that 70 percent of older adults receiving these pets reported a reduction/significant reduction in loneliness as well as a 75 percent decrease in pain. Individuals interested in a pet can contact their local office for the aging to get screened for eligibility. Pets are also available to anyone at a discount using the NYS Discount Code NYS20. Find more information at
NYSOFA Director Greg Olsen said: “Well before the COVID pandemic thrust this issue into the spotlight, NYSOFA and the aging services network realized the serious risk of social isolation for older adults as well as our role in addressing it. Building on existing core services, NYSOFA began piloting a series of innovative solutions, many of which leverage technology, to connect people, provide companionship, and significantly reduce isolation and its consequences. We’ve also been collecting data on these programs – and the outcomes have exceeded our expectations.”
Other NYSOFA Services, Supports, and Innovations to Combat Social Isolation
NYSOFA’s aging services network provides 20+ core services and supports annually to 1.3 million older adults. Many of these programs and services – delivered by Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) and their network partners – are aimed at combatting social isolation, including senior center programming, social adult day care, home-delivered meals, congregate meals, volunteer opportunities, friendly visiting or friendly calls programs that engage volunteers in outreach to older adults, in-home supports, and more. For a full program list, see https://aging.ny.gov/about-new-york-state-office-aging/.
Under Governor Hochul’s leadership, New York State is taking steps to develop age-friendly communities and build a more robust system of mental health care. Last year, Governor Hochul signed an executive order to create the state’s first-ever Master Plan for Aging (MPA) to ensure older New Yorkers can live healthy, fulfilling lives while aging with dignity and independence.
NYSOFA is now working with the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) to develop this comprehensive plan, which will recommend age-friendly policies to influence community development, transportation, and other supports needed to allow all New Yorkers to participate socially as they age. Last summer, the Master Plan for Aging’s council and advisory committee released a preliminary report, with the final report slated to be delivered by 2025. NYSOFA and NYSDOH have been holding community engagement sessions to hear public input on the MPA, including an upcoming Town Hall in Senator Cleare’s district on December 6 from 10 a.m. to noon at the ARC A. Philip Randolph Senior Center in Harlem. Registration information and a flyer are on the MPA website at https://www.ny.gov/new-york-states-master-plan-aging/master-plan-aging-community-engagement/.
Most recently, on November 9, 2023, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that she has appointed Dr. Ruth Westheimer as the nation’s first Ambassador to Loneliness to further address the issue of social isolation. The honorary title was bestowed on iconic talk show host to raise awareness and advise New Yorkers on steps to help address a growing issue statewide.
In addition to programs and services delivered at the local level, Director Olsen outlined some of the agency’s recent innovative partnerships that have yielded services available to any older adult in New York State as well as others that are available to individuals most at risk for social isolation. These include NYSOFA’s animatronic pet initiative as well as the statewide programs below.
- NYSOFA’s partnership with GetSetUp has connected nearly 200,000 older adults to online courses and communities that help them learn new skills and interact with others who share their interests. The platform also provides an economic opportunity for older adults to teach classes and supplement their income by getting paid for their skill. Individuals can browse course offerings by visiting the partnership page at https://www.getsetup.io/partner/NYSTATE. Caregivers can also book a class for someone else at https://dost.gsudevelopment.com/.
- NYSOFA is working with Intuition Robotics to test the efficacy of AI companion technology for older adults – known as ElliQ – and have just released a report showing a 95% reduction in loneliness and high levels of engagement for older-adult users of the technology. ElliQ is designed to foster independence and provide support for older adults through daily check-ins, assistance with wellness goals and physical activities, and more using voice commands and/or on-screen instructions. NYSOFA’s program includes 834 units being made available to older adults in the community. NYSOFA is working with local offices for the aging to identify older adults who would most benefit from the technology. Individuals who are interested can contact their Office for the Aging or read more at https://elliq.com/.
- NYSOFA has also partnered with Pets Together, a national non-profit organization, to connect older New Yorkers with the therapeutic power of pets using the Pets Together video chat service, which offers social interactions aimed at reducing loneliness and stress. Older New Yorkers can learn more about this free program and reserve a virtual visit directly at https://petstogether.org. A Pets Together video visit is approximately 30 minutes in length. Older adults who participate get to meet with volunteer pet-owners to see and learn about their pets. More importantly, the conversation offers an opportunity for engagement aimed at combating social isolation.
- NYSOFA is also partnering with GoGoGrandparent, a specialized ride-sharing service for older adults using trained drivers who understand the challenges older adults face. This partnership also provides an opportunity for older adults (and those of all ages) to enter the gig economy by becoming a driver while expanding transportation options in New York State.
- In 2022, NYSOFA joined approximately 20 community partners for All The Lonely People: Film Screenings and Community Conversations about Social Isolation at locations across New York. Each program consisted of a documentary screening and facilitated dialogue on the issues of loneliness and social isolation, bringing the conversation directly to communities throughout New York State on solutions. NYSOFA encourages individuals to watch the film and continue the dialogue about ways to address social isolation in their communities.
- In the fall of 2023, NYSOFA worked with over 130 aging services partners to host local game events that encourage intergenerational play as part of a national Reach Out and Play initiative. The Reach Out and Play events are sponsored by Ageless Innovation, maker of the animatronic pets that are a core part of NYSOFA’s programs to combat social isolation. As part of this initiative, Hasbro – the maker of iconic board games like Scrabble and The Game of Life – has worked with Ageless Innovation to revamp these games so they are easier for older adults to participate in and enjoy them. Learn more about the programs and how to sponsor your own game events at https://agelessinnovation.com/home/reachoutandplay.
Assemblymember Ron Kim, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Aging, said: “Loneliness and isolation within our growing older adult population are serious issues that must be addressed. As the Chair of the Assembly Committee on Aging, I have consistently advocated for ways that our state can solve or greatly mitigate them, and Senator Cleare has worked hard to do the same in the State Senate. I would like to thank her for hosting this event with the New York State Office for the Aging, and I look forward to working with her to tackle these important topics during the upcoming legislative session.”
Richard Allman of the A. Phillip Randolph Senior Center, said: “We know the isolation that any older adult faces and how that has grown exponentially in pandemic years. We must use that knowledge and the involvement of those most impacted in the development of New York State’s Master Plan for Aging … and seeing that the constituency, the people, and the resources are present to guarantee the Plan’s successful implementation.”
Martha Adams Sullivan, DSW, LMFT, MA, CEO, Citywide Behavioral Health Coalition for Black Elders, Inc., said: “I commend Senator Cleare for highlighting this important issue. In addition to the sheer emotional pain our elders who are socially isolated and lonely may experience, there can be serious social, health and mental health risks as well. It’s time to bring this important issue out of the shadows and address it.”
Reggie Nance, Associate State Director- Multicultural Engagement at AARP, said: “Social isolation is bad for your health – and for all of our wallets. One study shows social isolation is the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, while feelings of loneliness can increase the risk of early death by as much as 45 percent. And Medicare spends on average over $1,600 more on recipients with limited social connections than on those who are socially active – an extra $6.7 billion a year, according to an analysis by AARP and Stanford University. AARP New York applauds Senator Cleare for raising awareness of a problem that is especially pressing for older adults but too often underappreciated.”
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