LinkAges: Combating Loneliness with Usefulness for California Seniors

Among the most overlooked members of our societies that consistently experience social isolation are our elders.

In California, 43% of seniors report feelings of loneliness on a regular basis. This may be because, in retirement, they are no longer attached to a community at work. They may also have a shrinking peer group as a result of death or illness, and family members may no longer live nearby. Dr. Bryam Karasu of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine puts the situation simply: “They are lonely because they are alone.” Not only do their routines and relationships shift greatly after retirement, senior citizens are often placed in assisted living facilities and nursing homes where there is “little attention paid to deep engaging communication between a senior and the rest of the family.” As a result of these factors, and many others, some seniors feel “pushed to the side” and opportunities for true social connection are few and far between.

Oftentimes, medication is prescribed as a remedy for unhappiness, anxiety and stress — feelings frequently held by senior citizens. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation of California, however, has implemented a progressive initiative — started as a pilot program three years ago — that aims to combat loneliness amongst seniors without the use of medication. The program instead focuses on community building and social connection, with fantastic results.

The linkAges community program is one based on membership and strong, inter-generational community connections. It’s a simple concept: for every hour you spend with someone, you get an hour of help in return. This allows members to share and learn skills from each other, as well as to give and receive help. As of October, the San Francisco-based program boasts more than 1,000 members (42% aged 65+), all of them clocking in over 3,800 hours of community connections. For many of these members, the opportunities are plentiful, and they find the exchanges not only useful but often unique.
One elderly woman, who had recently moved to California from India, joined linkAges to find scrabble partners, and, in exchange for the companionship, she knit her lucky scrabble opponents a scarf. Another woman in the program, aged 59, offered to wash windows and, in exchange, has received rides to the airport, as well as Spanish and aerobics classes. A retired florist, who just recently became a member of linkAges, has taken advantage of the program by finding rides and walking partners; in exchange, they offer tutorials on the art of floral arranging. There really is something for everyone.

The loneliness that faces aged individuals is sometimes a by-product of feeling unuseful. In regards to her patient’s mental wellbeing, Geriatrician Linda Fried explained:

“Too many of my patients suffered from pain, far deeper than the physical, caused by not having a reason to get up in the morning. Many of my patients wanted to make a difference in the world but, finding no role for themselves, were treated as socially useless and even invisible.”

Often, older adults find themselves on the receiving end of care, but the linkAges initiative provides a platform for lasting, purposeful community connections. Lisa Huening, President of the Saratoga Area Senior Centre underscores this important aspect of the program, calling it “a way for them to give back and feel like they’re being valued and not feel like they’re just always taking.” Members join for many reasons, but the outcomes are measurable and evident: less loneliness amongst senior citizens, more social connectedness, and a greater satisfaction for life because the value of their knowledge and skills is recognized.

Increased social connection amongst seniors also has a direct effect on physiological health. Earlier this year, SocialConnectedness.org shared the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Centre’s study results, which found seniors who were highly social had a 70% lower rate of cognitive decline (dementia and alzheimer’s) than their less social peers. It really is a win-win situation.

The linkAges program is also a great example of effective “aging in place” planning. Aging in place means providing senior citizens with not only essential health and mobility services, but also supportive social programs, to live as independently as possible for as long as they can safely do so. What linkAges has successfully done is built a strong network of independent and socially enriched seniors who may not need to turn to anti-depressants to combat loneliness. The program has grown, and will soon be launching in Sacramento, after its initial success in San Francisco and Santa Cruz. Hopefully in the near future, the program will move to Canada, and then the rest of the world, where it will be welcomed by potential members armed with 60+ years of knowledge and skills, and a deep desire to connect.

For more information, please visit https://community.linkages.org.