By Gail Evans
I’m tired of the advice so easily dispensed during the holiday season to reach out to older relatives and neighbors who may be lonely. I’m tired also of advice to elders to “be more socially active,” as though that would magically lessen their loneliness. There’s nothing wrong with these “tips” as such. But well-meaning platitudes and seasonal reminders are tepid responses to what is widely acknowledged to be a “loneliness epidemic.” (In the November 9th New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof called for a “war on loneliness” in response.) We need psychological and sociological research to better understand loneliness, along with coordinated and targeted policies and programs. We need organized community initiatives, volunteers to deliver direct services and more person-to-person efforts. And we need to destigmatize loneliness so that people admit to it.
In 2018, Great Britain established a Ministry of Loneliness to address compelling research findings that loneliness is as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, increasing one’s risk of death by 29 percent. Nine million people in the United Kingdom are chronically lonely. Of these, four million are older people, and their number is expected to grow. Imagine going five or six days without seeing or speaking to anyone. More than half of those surveyed reported they regularly went that long, or longer.
Across U.K. communities, over 2,500 local political leaders, health care providers, churches, businesses and philanthropies are taking on the battle against loneliness, changing how lonely individuals view themselves and finding better ways to identify and reach out to the socially isolated with direct services such as friendly visiting and telephone reassurance. Interest-based clubs are springing up, communities are hosting activities and events to bring residents together, and volunteerism aimed at helping people connect is on the rise. Local authorities are expanding public transportation options for older people and transforming public spaces into venues for social interaction. Britain has even instituted social prescribing, with doctors providing patients with prescriptions for non-medical activities that promote meaningful, personal connections. You can read about these and other initiatives at www.campaigntoendloneliness.org, an inspiring website for anyone concerned about loneliness.
While not yet at the level of the Brits, Americans are also responding to surveys that show loneliness to be a growing social and health problem. Home sharing, as one answer to social isolation and loneliness, is gaining advocates (Hannah Reinmann has reported in these pages on her efforts to start home sharing in the West Village). Communities across the country are organizing events and activities to promote not only community spirit but new friendships and personal relationships. New York City, through its efforts to become more livable for residents, earned an “Age-Friendly City” designation from the World Health Organization several years ago, and age-friendly solutions are still being pursued under the aegis of the New York Academy of Medicine. The Mayor’s Office and City Council recently allocated funding for a friendly visiting service for older people as part of the City’s Geriatric Mental Health Initiative.
Among the most comprehensive efforts in the U.S. is connect2affect.org, a campaign launched by the AARP Foundation in 2016 to highlight the impact of social isolation and promote solutions. The campaign’s website, www.connect2affect.org, is a treasure-house of tools and resources for individuals and community groups.
What about our West Village? What are we doing to promote personal and community connectedness? Block associations do a lot. November’s WestView ran an article by the West 13th Street Alliance announcing November/December events to help build community and provide important socialization, learning and cultural opportunities. WestView’s Events pages also list a wealth of activities and public conversations where one can meet and interact with neighbors. I’m sure many unsung efforts to involve people with each other are going on as well. I’d love to hear about them, and about your ideas for combatting loneliness, whether small-scale or large-scale. We are all in this together! Let me hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org or through a phone message to 212-414-4883.
For more about programs that help older people alleviate loneliness read my article, “Older, Alone and Would Welcome Help? There’s Visiting Neighbors!