Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, America had a loneliness problem. Data from 2011 showed that nearly a quarter of adults 65 and older who were not in long-term care were socially isolated. A few years later, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, in his first stint as America’s doctor, from 2014 to 2017, embarked on a listening tour of the country. He anticipated hearing about opioid addiction and heart disease but was not prepared to discover that another scourge was undermining the mental and physical welfare of millions of Americans: a lack of human connection. The epiphany inspired Murthy to declare loneliness a public health crisis and to write a book, published last year: “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.”
Today, loneliness has become “so much more prevalent and dire,” says Caitlin Coyle, a research fellow at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who studies aging. And as it always has been, it is especially bad for older people.
Enter the Massachusetts Task Force to End Loneliness and Build Community, which Coyle co-directs and which aims to connect seniors with their communities. It’s not just a matter of emotions, Coyle says. Socially isolated people across age groups are 29 percent more likely to die of any cause, and isolated seniors are about 50 percent more likely to develop dementia.
“It’s not that being old equals being isolated,” Coyle says — but several factors can create barriers to connection with age. People may leave the workforce. Spouses and peers may die or become disabled. Physical and cognitive challenges and limited income can make it hard to leave the house.
Addressing this isolation among seniors has always been an important part of Coyle’s research. In the fall of 2019, AARP Massachusetts volunteer president Sandra Harris asked Coyle to help her find statewide solutions. They created the loneliness task force with the goal of “lifting up and developing promising practices out of communities,” Coyle says. Then in 2020, when COVID lockdowns made the kind of isolation seniors were already experiencing widespread across age groups, Coyle’s team was inspired to, as she says, “put the pedal to the metal.”
The group’s mission includes raising awareness and sharing information about what’s working.
Candace Konnert, a clinical psychologist at the University of Calgary who specializes in mental health and aging, co-authored a 2020 review of remote interventions for isolated seniors, such as social media, phone calls, and video-based therapy. These methods can work well, the researchers found, especially if recipients are actively engaged.
Although learning how to use new technologies can be a barrier for seniors, Konnert has seen older clients in her clinical practice embracing tools such as iPhones and FaceTime since the start of the pandemic. “Those kinds of things they would never have done before,” she says.
Coyle says COVID has forced the loneliness task force to focus on such basic tools and small steps. When we can’t throw parties or visit one another’s homes, how else can we keep connected? Small but meaningful gestures are at the heart of the group’s #ReachOutMA campaign.
“It’s the little things that can make a big difference in the way that we feel connected to one another,” Coyle says. Even “weak ties,” or casual connections with acquaintances, can boost our happiness and sense of connection. Coyle cites examples from across the state, including pen pal programs, organized phone check-ins, care packages, and virtual yoga.
Coyle is also finding inspiration in a program in Beverly that pairs seniors with children and their parents to plant gardens.
Pat Rubenstein, 70, signed up for the program after she and her husband moved to the coastal city in 2020 without knowing anyone there. “Over the past year it was really easy, an excuse almost, to become completely isolated and introverted,” Rubenstein says.
In June, Mindy D’Ippolito arrived at the Rubensteins’ house with her wife and two sons, as well as supplies for a garden bed. Together, the group planted vegetables, herbs, and even some weeds 8-year-old Asher found growing in the driveway. Meeting and gardening with her neighbors “fulfilled a really deep need,” Rubenstein says.
D’Ippolito says she also gained something from planting the Rubensteins’ garden bed. “There’s a different kind of isolation, I think, that comes with parenting young kids,” she says. The families — who, coincidentally, live on the same street — plan to get together again.
Now that life is getting closer to normal in Massachusetts, Coyle hopes people continue to reach out to others who remain isolated. “Not everybody has a rich social life to return to,” she says. But the pandemic may have strengthened our will and ability to find one another.
“That is the hope,” Coyle says: “That we will learn from this, and that the things we are learning from this will stick.”
Elizabeth Preston is a science journalist in the Boston area.