It may not be a cure to loneliness, but Salem has found a way to help residents connect through friendly conversation.
The city is designating 10 benches in local parks as “Happy to Chat” benches, outfitting them with signs encouraging people to sit and converse with those next to them.
The program, funded through a $1,000 grant from AARP Massachusetts, is part of Salem for All Ages, an initiative by the city to better meet the needs of its older residents.
“One of the biggest problems older people have is the feeling of isolation and loneliness,” said Patricia Zaido, cochair of the Salem for All Ages task force, an issue she said only grew worse during the pandemic.
But while the Happy to Chat benches were designed with seniors in mind, she said the city hopes people of all ages will take advantage of them.
“The signs invite people to sit and talk with others, to get to know one another, and to help build stronger bonds of connection between residents of all ages,” said Dominick Pangallo, chief of staff to Mayor Kim Driscoll and the other cochair of the Salem for All Ages task force.
“I hope people will be able to establish friendships,” Zaido said. “People might meet sitting at a bench and then arrange to meet at the same bench every day at a certain time.”
The durable signs with the Happy to Chat message will be affixed to the center of the benches, some of which are existing and others being newly installed for the program. The first bench was designated at Salem Common in late August, with others to follow soon in nine other parks.
“The Happy to Chat bench effort is all about building connections between people by creating a welcome place for them to sit and learn more about their neighbors,” said Driscoll, who is the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. “I hope everyone in Salem will keep their eyes open for a Happy to Chat bench, have a seat, and strike up a conversation with someone new.”
The city launched Salem for All Ages in 2017, the third Massachusetts community to earn such a designation from the AARP and the World Health Organization.
Previous initiatives under Salem for All Ages have included launching the Salem Skipper, a low-cost, on-demand shared-ride service, and the city’s adoption of an ordinance expanding potential use of accessory dwelling units.
Salem got the idea for Happy to Chat benches from Caitlin Coyle, codirector of the Massachusetts Task Force to End Loneliness and Build Community, an organization that works closely with the state’s Age-Friendly communities. Coyle is also director of the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging.
Coyle said in early 2021 she heard about some United Kingdom communities introducing Happy to Chat benches and thought the idea worth trying in Massachusetts.
“We don’t know whether Chat Benches make people less lonely,” she said, “but we do know seemingly small interactions everyday — people talking and engaging with each other in a social way — [have] a positive influence on our social well-being.”
Aware that AARP Massachusetts was offering a “Small Dollar Big Impact” grant program, Coyle’s task force this spring encouraged Age-Friendly communities to apply for those grants and consider using funds for Happy to Chat benches.
In addition to Salem, Coyle said Arlington and Bridgewater are initiating Happy to Chat Bench programs on a smaller scale.
Zaido had firsthand experience with the benches when she noticed a man sitting at the one on Salem Common.
“I said to him, ‘Do you know about this bench?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I think it’s a great idea.” So I sat down and talked to him. He told me about how he lives in Marblehead but grew up in Salem. We had a great chat.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.