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High-touch connection key to curing social isolation

It seems like a paradox: in the age of social media, smartphones, and expanding internet access, we’re lonelier than ever before. Author Olivia Laing writes that the internet presents itself as “a space in which no one need ever suffer the pang of loneliness, [a space] in which friendship, sex and love are never more than a click away.” And she’s not wrong. Through technology, adults of all ages have new ways to retain social connections and build new relationships. But loneliness persists.

There may be great promise for social connection through technology, but it’s hardly a panacea.

Roughly 40% of US adults today report feeling lonely–and it is worse for older Americans. Studies estimate that up to 46% of older adults describe themselves as lonely.

The causes are myriad. One-third of Americans over age 65 live alone, compared to half of Americans over age 85. The deaths of family and friends, changing neighborhood demographics, and relocation to accessible, age-friendly housing can all create social isolation. Retirement and the movement of children may also remove existing social networks for older adults.

Regardless of the cause, social separation is bad for our health. Research connects isolation with cognitive decline, poor immune health, higher levels of stress hormones, increased mortality risks, changes in sleep patterns, and inflammation. Loneliness is worse for us than obesity and is, arguably, comparable to the risk of smoking.

Fortunately, the solution can be as simple as a conversation or shared meal. One way that Seabury Connector counters social isolation is through its home delivered meal program. Older adults throughout Washington, DC receive hot meals delivered to their door, but it’s bigger than just meals. Seabury’s home delivered meal participants also enjoy a conversation with a friendly face. Over time, Seabury Connector employees become a familiar part of an older adult’s social network.

In a similar way, Seabury Wards 5 and 6 also promote social connection. At Seabury’s 15 community dining sites, older adults enjoy daily hot meals, educational programs, and recreational activities. Eating together fosters new relationships and provides vital social networks for older adults, both with their peers and younger neighbors.

For example, DC’s Mayor Muriel Bowser (pictured above) recently joined our work for greater social connection. On Monday, February 13, Mayor Bowser joined Seabury Connector in delivering meals to homebound seniors; she also visited Seabury Ward 6’s Arthur Capper community dining site to share a meal. Mayor Bowser brought with her Valentine’s Day cards created by DC Public School students.

You can help, too: Keep an eye out for older neighbors and check on them regularly; encourage older adults to maintain their existing social networks, such as hobby clubs and religious communities; volunteer with Seabury to serve local older adults in your community. Social isolation won’t be cured by technology or other innovations, but through shared meals, conversations, and even Valentine’s cards, we’re making a difference for older adults in Washington, DC.


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