Loneliness is epidemic in the world today, especially among people over 50. Half of those 50+ identify as lonely, disconnected, and socially isolated. Social isolation can also be a choice: some elders prefer being alone to struggling with a disability in public.
As noted in a previous post, H.H. the Dalai Lama wrote, “In one shocking experiment, researchers found that senior citizens who didn’t feel useful to others were nearly three times as likely to die prematurely as those who did feel useful. This speaks to a broader human truth: We all need to be needed… Selflessness and joy are intertwined. The more we are one with the rest of humanity, the better we feel.
“We should start each day by consciously asking ourselves, ‘What can I do today to appreciate the gifts that others offer me?’ We need to make sure that global brotherhood and oneness with others are not just abstract ideas that we profess, but personal commitments that we mindfully put into practice.
“Each of us has the responsibility to make this a habit. But those in positions of responsibility have a special opportunity to expand inclusion and build societies that truly need everyone.”
Like a reverse mortgage, programs that reverse loneliness can make all the difference in how older adults experience their later years.
Entering the Circle
What Passport for Wellness does for those aging in place or in assisted living, CircleTalk is doing for independent living communities.
CircleTalk.org takes seniors into deep connection. The program evolved from one elder’s desire for real relationships in her senior living community. A vigorous mother of five grown children, Vanna Weyman moved into a senior residence when her husband of 60 years was hospitalized with a massive stroke. While she looked forward to making new friends, the reality was, conversation rarely went beyond small talk. One weekend her daughter returned from a course on how to cultivate discussion-based, interactive programs that foster a sense of community in the classroom. Vanna had her Eureka moment: “That’s what we need here!”
Launched in 2010, CircleTalk is a regularly scheduled, structured conversation program guided by trained facilitators. It follows a customized curriculum to engage older adults in meaningful conversations, using creative activities to inspire personal sharing.
CircleTalk is designed to help older adults:
- Enjoy a sense of belonging
- Experience meaningful engagement in small groups
- Feel less isolated
- Discover new opportunities for personal expression, relationship building, and healthy community.
“As people age, they move from doing to being. And when you talk about the ‘being’ in a person’s life, it is about their essence, and in many cases people have never had the opportunity to share their essence,” explains CircleTalk creative director Deborah Skovron.
CircleTalk conversations focus on experiences rather than activities. “You don’t really connect around bingo and movies and similar. CircleTalk creates deeper engagement that mines their humanity. Beyond the demographic architecture of life, we explore the human experience. We can lead a group for twelve weeks and become very close as a group, yet never know whether a group member has grandchildren. We ask about seminal moments, major paths he or she had to make choices about, the great questions in life that have gone unanswered. This is what allows people to feel more known than you would ever imagine.”
“It’s about moving from light, trite and polite to what really matters.”
Or as Cathy Lightfoot of Masterpiece Living says, “It’s not about age, it’s about attitude.” If someone is moving into a senior living community with a HECM for Purchase, for example, this is a golden opportunity to choose a new environment where they will be able to connect deeply with new neighbors, if that’s their desire.
EngAGEing the Whole Person
Tim Carpenter, founder and executive director of EngAGE and host/producer of the Experience Talks radio show, is another beyond the box thinker when it comes to elder engAGEment. Nonprofit EngAGE is changing the way people think about aging (and the aging experience itself) by transforming senior apartment communities into vibrant centers of learning, wellness and creativity.
EngAGE provides life-enhancing arts, wellness, lifelong learning, community building and intergenerational programs and events to thousands of seniors in southern California. Carpenter catalyzed the creation of the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, a first-of-its-kind senior apartment community with high-end arts amenities and programs.
“We fight loneliness in unique ways at EngAGE. There are no medical interventions for loneliness. It is a social intervention with expectations of coming to play, taking risks and being part of something larger than ourselves. People need expectations and purpose to thrive. We use the arts, lifelong learning, and intergenerational community building to move from ‘nice’ to ‘necessity’”.
Echoing Skovron at CircleTalk, he says, “Instead of getting together over bingo and donuts elders get together over short stories and performance.
“One study compared the effects of loneliness to smoking: loneliness and social isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day! There’s a very high instance of increased heart disease as well other physical and mental health problems.
“Loneliness, social isolation and depression manifest differently. Loneliness is about your own perception: the difference between what you think your life should be and what your life is. All of us experience loneliness at different levels, but as we get older we experience it in a way that’s frighteningly dangerous.”