State summit targets sources of loneliness in all ages

  • The Massachusetts Task Force to End Loneliness and Build Community gathered for a virtual forum on Thursday as part of their ongoing work to combat loneliness. Alfonso D'agostino/Dreamstime/TNS

State House News Service
Published: 9/28/2023 3:56:09 PM
Modified: 9/28/2023 3:55:21 PM

BOSTON — Aiming to foster more connected communities across Massachusetts and staunch the negative health outcomes that can result from social isolation, dozens of service providers and advocacy groups gathered virtually Thursday as part of their ongoing work to combat loneliness.

A range of vulnerable Bay Staters are considered to be lonely, including older adults who are living alone, immigrants, young adults ages 18 to 25, caregivers, young mothers and people of color, according to Sandra Harris, president of AARP Massachusetts and co-leader of the Massachusetts Task Force to End Loneliness and Build Community.

The task force’s fourth annual summit coincided with National Good Neighbor Day, which promotes the “good neighbor mindset” of building connections with neighbors, as well as supporting one another and celebrating events together. The task force, helmed by AARP Massachusetts, represents more than 50 organizations, including local governments, nonprofits and academic institutions, among other partners and advocates.

“We have come a long way since the spring of 2019, when we noticed the impact of the worldwide epidemic of loneliness on the commonwealth,” Harris said at the summit Thursday morning. “When we began this work four years ago, our focus was on older adults living alone. Since that time, our understanding of those most at risk for loneliness has expanded; the pandemic pulled back the curtain and highlighted more lonely spaces.”

National health data show that about half of adults experience loneliness. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory in May on what he described as a “public health crisis” of loneliness and isolation.

Murthy said being socially disconnected causes heightened risk of heart disease, dementia, stroke, depression and anxiety. And the elevated risk of premature death is comparable to the risk from smoking daily, according to the advisory.

Strategies such as strengthening social infrastructure, overhauling digital environments, and pursuing public policies like ensuring accessible transportation can improve social connections, according to a framework outlined in Murthy’s advisory.

The isolation felt among older LGBTQ+ adults in Massachusetts is “pretty severe,” said David Conner, executive director of a recently launched virtual senior center called OutstandingLife. Many of those individuals have been abandoned by their families, avoided intimate partnerships and are still experiencing trauma from the AIDS epidemic, Conner said at the summit.

“I think a lot of folks don’t realize how lonely and isolated LGBTQ folks are,” said Conner, who noted it is also difficult to pinpoint where older LGBTQ population are located around the state. “We’re trying to make it as easy as possible, to create as few barriers as possible for people to get online and just get to the programming ... then you’re in a program with other LGBTQ elders over an interest that you all may have.”

Digital technology is increasingly used as a tool to connect people who have disabilities. That includes for individuals who face transportation barriers but can access online spaces, said Amy Ruell, director of adjustment support services and support groups at the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

She urged summit attendees to not stereotype individuals who are blind and visually impaired.

“We know how much isolation and loneliness is out there, and we try with our efforts to help our consumers to learn how to maintain connections with family and community,” Ruell said. “There is a lot of fear and risk associated with doing that and venturing out and even trying to relate to friends and family. One of the biggest fears that we hear from our consumers is they don’t really know what kind of reception they’re going to receive.”

Throughout Massachusetts this year, the task force has held several pop-up conversations, such as setting up tables with speaking prompts at parks or community events, with the goal of sparking interactions and a sense of community.

The conversations are not meant to be political or argumentative over community issues, said Caitlin Coyle, task force co-chair and director of the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute.

“Between the COVID pandemic and other societal changes, including technology, it seems that sometimes the art of conversation, we get out of practice or it gets a little lost,” Coyle said at the summit. “This ConversationsMA project is an example of how we sort of reinvent or remind people of the value of face-to-face conversation.”


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