ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — The latest public health epidemic is not a disease or something that people can catch.

Heath experts said that loneliness and isolation increase the risk of premature death.

A program that works to build relationships for local seniors has found that isolation and a lack of social interaction can be just as deadly as smoking a dozen cigarettes per day.

They is why Lifescape Community Services is helping local seniors combat that feeling.

“I live with my son. He works from home, so he’s busy, and otherwise I would just be there by myself, you know,” said local senior Jim Vant.

Vant has been going to Lifescape three times a week for a year. He said that getting out of the house and seeing his friends gives him a sense of purpose.

“Being around the people and doing the activities, and in case we go and we like, you say, we exercise a little bit in the morning and, you know, loosen up our bones,” he said.

Vant said that he enjoys playing cards, reading and the ride to and from his house, while others enjoy watching TV, knitting, coloring or just chatting.

Joy Drysdale, program services director at Lifescape, said that their main focus to get seniors out of the house and social again.

“We are well aware that COVID didn’t help in this situation, so we’re geared towards our programming to help combat social isolation, because we know with older adults, social isolation brings anxiety, depression, sometimes pain, and that can also result in health issues that they have to fight off,” Drysdale said. “We realize one in two older adults basically face social isolation, so it’s an issue that we all need to come together and fight together.”

Kevin Polky, a licensed clinical social worker at KP Counseling, said that loneliness is a natural thing for everyone to go through. What matters is how long a person stays stuck in that loneliness.

“I believe that all of us are going to experience a sense of loneliness in our life, throughout our life, at different time periods in our life,” Polky said. “It’s, I think, it’s not to avoid experiencing loneliness, because it’s part of the human experience.”

Some of the steps that Lifescape is taking is to offer different socializing events, like joining a club, class or even games to make new friends. They also encourage seniors to write down a positive memory each day, along with providing daily wellness checks.

“I think it has helped me and it would help anybody to get out and to be around people,” Vant said. “But, you know, our own age and stuff like that, and like I say, they have an opportunity to participate in activities, or they can watch TV, or they can do whatever they like.”

Vant said that the feeling of loneliness has no age, gender or race. He suggested that residents should call a friend, get outside, take a break from social media and realize that the feeling is not permanent. If they are struggling, they can always reach out for help.