Life’s no beach for many senior citizens in Florida, according to the latest America’s Health Rankings senior report.
Instead of enjoying golf courses, senior villages and sunshine, too many of our older Floridians are suffering from social isolation and depression.
Out of 50 states, Florida came in at No. 29 for America’s most physically and mentally healthy seniors.
Even Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin — with their miserable winters that keep people cooped up inside — are producing a healthier elderly population.
So why isn’t a state like Florida generating more healthy seniors? Isn’t a thriving older population Florida’s thing?
According to the study, many of the 5 million senior citizens living here are inactive, uninvolved and depressed.
Florida saw a 36 percent increase in the number of seniors diagnosed by a health professional with a depressive disorder.
The report also looked at factors related to depression, such as poverty, mental distress, suicide, risk of social isolation and excessive drinking (almost 10 percent of older Floridians were recorded as excessive drinkers).
Nationally, Florida is also among the states with the highest senior poverty percentages (10.2 percent) with minorities being disproportionately affected.
Poverty is linked to depression and chronic disease. Florida also happens to be the least healthy state in America when it comes to seniors with multiple chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease and depression.
An underlying issue connects some of the dots: People in America are living longer, but not necessarily better, as their income starts to dwindle and their community of support starts to shrink.
Locally, Central Florida’s adults who are 60 and older already make up just over a quarter of the population, according to the Department of Elder Affairs.
And many seniors are living in desperately lonely and stressful circumstances outside of sprawling retirement wonderlands.
“It’s the best of times and the worst of times,” said Marc Middleton, founder of Growing Bolder, a multimedia company focused on aging. “We see all the seniors being active and doing cool stuff but there’s a much larger invisible group we don’t talk about and, candidly, most people don’t want to know about it.”
Many of our elderly population are transplanted here from other states with little to no extended family here to help.
Some find themselves alone as they grow older and a mate passes away, leaving little to no extended family or deep community connection. The report also showed that Florida seniors rank No. 47 among all the states in volunteerism, which is an important identifier for social isolation.
The combination of loneliness and the financial strain from outliving resources is creating a private hell for many seniors who thought they were moving to a tropical haven.
Randall Hunt, CEO for the Senior Alliance Center, has seen firsthand just how desperate the situation is for many seniors.
His company helps fund programs that offer food, medical and life assistance to the elderly in Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Brevard counties.
Meals on Wheels has a wait list of more than 2,000 people in Central Florida needing daily hot meals and the human connection that comes with them, a number expected to increase as the population grows. According to the most recent Census, one in five citizens will be at least 65 years old or older by 2040. Today, that number is one in seven.
Hunt said it’s difficult to raise private funds for seniors because companies prefer to invest in children.
“[There’s this attitude of] “I don’t know why they didn’t plan for themselves,” Hunt said. “But I’ll tell you, it’s very simple. They didn’t plan to outlive their money.”
Hunt tells of a the 79-year-old homeless veteran he helped last year. She had no spouse, no children and no extended relatives to turn to for help after being evicted from her home.
Hunt’s organization does not receive money for housing assistance, but he was able to put her at an extended-stay hotel.
Helping the woman keep her dog, however, turned out to be Hunt’s biggest fight.
“That dog was the only connection she had to humanity,” said Hunt, who was able to help her keep her Chihuahua.
How sad that in one of the most populated states in America, so many of our older citizens feel alone.
At least, we can do something about it. If you have an older neighbor, check in. Invite them to dinner some time. Help them become a volunteer to stay engaged in the community, or if you’re socially adventurous, go for a walk with an older neighbor around the block.
Because while some people might be living in Florida’s paradise, let’s be mindful that a lot of our seniors are living in painful solitude.
Shannon Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @iamshannongreen, or at 407-420-5063.