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Northeast Neighborhood Socials and How Seniors Can Combat Social Isolation

During their annual 2016 Senior Housing Conference, LeadingAge Minnesota - the largest association of organizations serving Minnesota seniors - honored Catholic Eldercare with the coveted Community Impact Award for a 4-week pilot called Northeast Neighborhood Socials. Held with the assistance of a skilled facilitator from the University of Minnesota, this program utilized “Story Circles” as a way to reduce social isolation. Residents were invited to enjoy coffee and treats, with conversation prompts like “How did you come to Northeast Minneapolis?” “What was a particularly memorable holiday you enjoyed?” and “Was there a memorable friendship you’ve made over the years?”

The pilot produced a toolkit including materials on the impact of social isolation and how to develop and implement Story Circles, later distributed to Twin Cities Greater United Way, Catholic Charities, and Hennepin County’s Community Health Improvement Partnership, amongst several other area communities. This program adoption proved that our communities only become richer when they have the ability to engage and learn from older members, better preparing and supporting those residents during the aging process.

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Social isolation impacts an increasing swath of our rapidly growing senior population, and is linked to detrimental health outcomes: long-term illness, depression, and dementia, to name only a few. According to the Administration on Aging, 13.3 million people aged 65 and older lived alone in 2015. As people age, the chances of becoming isolated gets greater.

It’s hard to embrace the aging process without the support of family members or friends by your side. For many, getting older is inversely proportional with the size of our social circles due to life changes such as retirement, widowhood, loss of friends and family, driving restrictions, or lack of mobility. Fortunately, dedicated research over the past couple of decades has helped us get a better look into the causes and prevention of loneliness in seniors.

For those who are looking for more intensive contacts with fellow seniors, programs - like the Northeast Neighborhood Socials - are popping up to mitigation loneliness and strengthen our communities. Here are four additional ways to help combat social isolation and promote connectedness:

  1. Driving restrictions can be hard for just about anyone to accept. For many of us, having access to adequate transportation can bring a sense of independence, the ultimate goal in promoting social health. Which is why it’s so important for family members and friends to reach out and offer rides to their loved ones, or help them learn the public transportation system. Providing special transportation options to seniors also aids in social integration.

  2. Cultivating a hobby or interest is two-fold: it provides seniors with a sense of purpose, and reduces the likelihood of succumbing to the negative factors of social isolation. Participating in group activities like card games or arts and crafts is inherently social in nature. Helping others through volunteerism also kindles social enrichment. Seniors should start with the things he or she likes doing, or look into organizations like the Senior Corps who specifically match senior volunteers to the places where their services are needed.

  3. Hard-of-hearing seniors may avoid possible social situations in fear of feeling inadequate, awkward, or embarrassed. Encourage the senior in your life to get their hearing problems addressed and professionally assessed. A hearing aid may be the only thing getting into between a senior and improved social health. Vision problems may also prevent a senior from venturing out of their home. Encourage your senior loved one to make eye health a priority and schedule a vision test this year. 

  4. Similarly to having a sense of purpose is having something to properly take care of and nurture - like caring for a pet. Mary Whyam, Chairman of the Society of Companion Animal Studies said, “For a lot of people, having a pet means they feel less lonely and therefore less socially isolated. This is particularly true for elderly people living on their own who are less mobile. To them, a pet is a great companion, giving them unconditional love and friendship that they would otherwise miss through reduced social contact.” If owning a pet is out of the question, tending a garden can also help the drive to nurture. Consider gifting your loved one a plant or gardening supplies.

In what ways have you or someone you know overcome social isolation? Share your story in the comments below.