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A Cure for Senior Loneliness Is Within Our Reach

We can solve the problem of social isolation by thinking differently about senior housing


Guest EssayGuest Essay

Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report

(Next Avenue invited all our 2016 Influencers in Aging to write essays about the one thing they would like to change about aging in America. This is one of the essays.)

The Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 required that packages of cigarettes display the warning “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.” I wish the Surgeon General would issue this warning: “Caution: Loneliness and Social Isolation May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

College and retirement — similar times in life if you look at them through the right set of goggles.

Yes, just like smoking, loneliness and social isolation are deadly. And just like smoking in the 1960s, our society is just beginning to understand the perils of loneliness and social isolation today. A 2015 study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The New York Times recently ran a story with the headline “Social Isolation Is Killing Us.”

This is not news to me. I work in senior housing. We see it every day. Loneliness can kill you — period — and there is no medical intervention that can cure it. But it can be cured in other ways. That’s why we do what we do at EngAGE.

The Similarity of Retirement and College

EngAGE provides life-enhancing onsite programs in affordable senior and multigenerational housing — classes, workshops and events in the arts, well-being, lifelong learning, community building and intergenerational connectivity — in southern California, Oregon and Minnesota. We simply change the idea of aging by transforming retirement communities into vibrant centers of life and social connection.

I started looking for a model of how to change the “box” of senior housing 20 years ago, but I had to look elsewhere. I found my model in college.

College and retirement — similar times in life if you look at them through the right set of goggles.

They are both new phases of life, where we can utilize our free time to better ourselves, continue to grow and become something new each day if we choose.

But unlike college students, the people who enter the doors of our senior housing communities often come down a path of grief.

A Model to Curb Senior Loneliness and Isolation

A common tale goes like this:

Mom and Dad live in their town where they have made a life together. Dad dies. The family is worried about Mom, so they move her closer to them to be near family, far from her social network. But the family, the adult children of Mom, often have jobs, soccer practices and a full plate of caring for their own children. Mom becomes depressed and isolated.

The EngAGE model inserts into this mix an instruction manual, a cadre of classes and programs and events, and a pathway to social connection right upstairs from where Mom lives. When Mom walks in, someone like me is standing there with a college catalogue giving her ideas about what she might do with the rest of her life — daily programs that draw people together, where they create lasting relationships and a sense of community and purpose.

EngAGE contracts with affordable housing developers to provide required services programs onsite, but instead of just checking the boxes on subsidy applications, delivering the minimum, EngAGE delivers a package of programs that is proven to create healthy outcomes and extended independence.

A New Normal

How do you get someone who is lonely and isolated to re-enter the world? EngAGE programs do that every day by creating an environment where they live that is filled with arts, wellness, lifelong learning, a sense of community and purpose, connectivity to all ages and a place in the community elevated by people seeing how great this time of life can be instead of being afraid of it.

Let’s move this from nice to necessity, from being a good thing to being required operating procedure for getting housing subsidies.

In a short film about our program, called A Dose of Creativity, a few of our residents talk about what it’s like, living like this as we grow older. I invite you to watch the film, listen to them and try to envision what it would be like if everyone grew older like they do. It’s possible. We see it every day where we work.

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