Building Social Connections

According to the National Council on Aging, one in six seniors living alone in the United States faces physical, cultural, and/or geographical barriers that isolate them from their peers and communities.

With isolation often comes loneliness and depression, and that’s the problem these two organizations are trying to solve. Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly and FriendshipWorks both serve neighborhoods within the city of Boston with programs to build long-term relationships between isolated elders and volunteers.

“Sometimes these individuals have outlived all of their family members, which is particularly painful for them, or often their family may live far away or be otherwise absent, and they’re on their own,” said René Morrissette, assistant director of Little Brothers. “When this happens, there’s the risk of isolation and loneliness. That’s what we want to combat.”

Little Brothers’ core program is its Intergenerational Matching Program, which brings isolated elderly women and men age 70 or over together with younger people for a long-term social relationship. The program serves about 160 to 175 elders per year within the city of Boston. Volunteers commit to 12 months with three to four visits per month. However, according to Morrissette, the majority of volunteers continue long after the one-year commitment.

“We allow relationships to take shape organically,” said Morrissette. “Some volunteers chat daily with their elder matches, some weekly. It’s rare someone stops after 12 months because relationships have formed at that point.” In some instances, Morrissette explained, it’s not just a one-on-one relationship. Some people volunteer as couples or as a family.

FriendshipWorks visit

A friendly visit through FriendshipWorks

FriendshipWorks offers a similar program called Friendly Visiting for elders or adults with disabilities age 60 or older living within the city of Boston or neighboring Brookline who would like somebody to visit them on an ongoing basis. The program currently has about 170 matches, with the majority of elders either English- or Spanish-speaking, and an increasing number who are either vision- or hearing-impaired.

“Our mission is to reduce social isolation and replace it with the warmth and comfort that only a caring and dedicated friend can provide,” said Janet Seckel-Cerrotti, executive director of FriendshipWorks.

Seckel-Cerrotti explains that identifying as lonely is not easy for many elders. Instead, many older adults enter into the program by asking for help with daily tasks, like sorting the mail or picking up prescriptions.

“Social isolation often means that daily activities, like getting to a doctor’s appointment or figuring out something on the computer, just don’t get accomplished because the elder has no one to ask for help when needed,” explained Seckel-Cerrotti. “These are the kinds of things someone would do for a friend or neighbor. Our volunteers help keep our elders’ lives in order and friendship develops from there.”

Through these friendships, isolated elders gain increased access to companionship, community contact, physical activity, and someone in their life they can count on.

“Just knowing that someone is coming to visit once a week changes the elder’s life,” said Seckel-Cerrotti. “It gives our elders a reason to get dressed in the morning or remember what they read or watched on TV so they can share a story with a friend. We’ve had friendships that have started this way last for 18 years.”

FriendshipWorks also offers a short-term assistance program called Friendly Helpers that provides a way for older adults to receive the help they need, while still feeling autonomous. Volunteers help with seasonal tasks such as raking or shoveling, small projects around the house, or even accompanying an older adult on tours of assisted living or nursing home facilities. In addition, FriendshipWorks’ Walking Buddies program matches volunteers with elders for regular walks.

“Sometimes frailty, icy sidewalks or a number of other factors may keep someone from getting up and out of the house,” said Seckel-Cerrotti. “Having a companion is motivation to stay healthy, even if they’re simply walking the halls in an apartment complex together.”

Little BrothersLittle Brothers also offers additional programs to build social connections. The nonprofit hosts several social events per month as well as holiday programs, which attract up to 400 to 500 people and give isolated elders a chance to interact socially with volunteers and each other.

Both organizations offer a medical escort program which allows elders to call if they need assistance getting to medical appointments, navigating hospitals, understanding doctors’ instructions or picking up prescriptions. In addition, a telephone reassurance program enables Little Brothers volunteers to maintain frequent phone contact with elders who are particularly frail or vulnerable.

“This kind of regular contact is essential for not only social contact but also security,” said Morrissette. “If we’re not able to reach someone, we’ll find out why.” Morrissette shared a story of one elderly man in Brighton who hadn’t been answering his phone. The volunteer alerted the staff who alerted the man’s daughter in New Hampshire. She then called the police who discovered he had fallen and transported him to the hospital.

“It was lucky we had a volunteer who was trying to make regular contact, or the situation would have been much worse,” said Morrissette. “One of the wonderful side effects of our program is that, by building social connections, we’re giving people the opportunity to continue living independently longer than they may have otherwise.”

Seckel-Cerrotti agrees. “For people who can’t get out, we bring the world to them,” she said.

This story was published originally in the Tufts Health Plan Foundation’s September 10, 2013 newsletter and updated in November 2013.

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