The desire to spend time alone is a natural and even healthy urge. But, seeking time alone and social isolation, are not the same.
Social isolation — defined as a lack of social connections — is considered a serious public health risk and can impair one’s physical and mental health. Older adults are at increased risk for social isolation because they are more likely to have lost a spouse and close friends, live alone, suffer from a chronic illness, or have limited mobility.
To combat this devastating public health problem, the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston and AARP Massachusetts have created a resource guide highlighting ways in which many Massachusetts cities and towns are already addressing social isolation in their communities. The guide is the first completed project of the Massachusetts Task Force to End Loneliness & Build Community. The task force is co-led by Sandra Harris, president of AARP Massachusetts, and Caitlin Coyle, Ph.D., the lead author of the resource guide and a research fellow at the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston.
“It’s even more important now that we prioritize connections for ourselves and the people around us,” says Coyle. “The global pandemic and the national reckoning with systemic racism in this country have made some people painfully aware of how distant and disconnected they are while making others more appreciative of their relationships.”
The guide, “It’s the Little Things: A Community Resource for Strengthening Social Connections,” identifies more than 100 ideas for building connections with older residents in three categories: the built environment, the social environment, and community health. Nearly all of the ideas presented are linked to “real world” examples. Earlier this year, the task force convened meetings of more than 300 community stakeholders and residents across the state to generate these ideas. Participating in the summit were Mike Festa, director of AARP Massachusetts, and Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of AARP Foundation. Both shared their excitement about the guide arriving at a time when communities are vulnerable to isolation in the winter months and compounded by the pandemic.
“There isn’t a silver bullet to address social isolation,” says Coyle. “We offer a variety of approaches that can be modified or used as inspiration to create new ideas for connecting. Feeling connected to others doesn’t require a major effort. It really is the ‘little things.’ Connecting can be a simple gesture, such as offering a compliment or sending birthday cards to friends. ”
Coyle stresses that exploring responses to social isolation has been an on-going activity by many organizations and advocates for seniors well before the Covid-19 virus grounded many day-to-day activities. But, while the pandemic’s effect has served to intensify isolation for many, communities need to continue building connections. These strategies should include one-on-one interactions and meaningful group engagements.
Social activities can offer rewarding contact while also allowing participants to stay safe from the Covid-19 virus. For example, organizations can host a “movie night” where individuals watch the same movie in their homes and then participate in a discussion over a video chat platform. Many book clubs are already following this practice.
Winter in New England can also serve to underscore isolation; fewer daylight hours, freezing temperatures, and winter storms prevent many from venturing out. This is another reason why communities need to continue to work on ways to support and strengthen social connections and implement some ideas now before the winter weather begins.
“Our report shines a light on the creative and progressive thinking across Massachusetts by documenting the efforts that have been underway before the pandemic arrived,” says Coyle. “We hope that by equipping communities with ideas of where to start, we can begin to build empirical evidence for solutions that have been implemented and evaluated.”
The Gerontology Institute is monitoring strategies for combatting isolation to determine those that are most effective.
Communities are asked to share their strategies over social media using the hashtag #reachoutma. The Reach Out Massachusetts campaign, led by AARP Massachusetts, seeks to ensure every older adult in Massachusetts feels connected to their community and enjoys strong social well-being. For more information about the campaign, visit https://www.umb.edu/demographyofaging/reachoutma.