March 3, 2021

Episode 4: Seniors and Loneliness


Some 12 million Americans over the age of 60 live alone. This doesn't mean they're all lonely, but loneliness is a massive issue for older adults, especially among those 80 and over. So, hosts Jeremy Warshaw and Judy D'Mello dig deep into one possible cause of this problem -- an issue that looms large in our society today: ageism. 

Ageism, in terms of popular culture and attitudes, is rife in the West. Truthfully, it's a cultural scandal that often leads to seniors being marginalized and isolated, which, in turn, leads to loneliness. But thanks to the efforts of this episode's first guest, Katie Wade, who works for Covia, an organization that's dedicated to improving life for older adults, there are available programs for seniors to find connections and companionship. She believes strongly, and it’s backed up by research, that seniors need and benefit from being treated as active participants in close relationships. That in fact their brains are fully capable of creativity and conceptual thinking, and they are not just looking for caregiving support. 

Additionally, we hear from two older women, who experience loneliness in different ways, about the value and impact these programs have on their lives. Meanwhile, Dr. Louise Hawkley, this week's final guest, who is a research scientist at the National Opinion Research Center, affiliated with the University of Chicago and a founding member of the International Loneliness and Isolation Research Network, offers unparalleled insight into loneliness and ageism, as well as resources that can help.

Links

Older adults living alone

Covia

Social Call

NORC

AARP

Connect2Affect

Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly

Experience Corps

Transcript

[PHONE RINGING]

[MUSIC]

 

Edna: (00:08) 

Hello?

 

Jeremy: (00:10)

Hello. Can you hear me? 

 

Edna: (00:12) 

Oh yes. Can you hear me?

 

 Jeremy: (00:15)

I can hear you. But I'm just going to make it a little bit louder. So, uh, can you say a few things so I can just check to see 

 

Edna: (00:20)

I love you dearly. 

 

Jeremy: (00:24)

I'm very flattered. Thank you. Thank you. 

 

Edna: (00:26):

I'm not in love with you. I love you, as a person. I love a lot of my friends But some of them that I dislike. So I don’t like them.

 

Jeremy: (00:26)

Fair enough. Well, you are such a character. This is why I enjoy your conversation and your time so much. And maybe I shouldn't be enjoying myself so much, but I am. And I thank you for that. 

 

Edna: (00:49)

Well, you should enjoy yourself, all the time. Life is very short, you know.

 

[MUSIC]

 

Judy (01:00):

Hello and welcome to "Is Anybody Out There?" a podcast about loneliness brought to you by the Connectery. I'm Judy D'Mello

 

Jeremy (01:10):

And I'm Jeremy Warshaw.

 

Jeremy (01:19):

Today's episode is about seniors and loneliness. In that phone conversation you just heard, I was speaking with 91-year-old Edna, who is one of over 12 million Americans over the age of 60 living on their own. That's not to say they're all lonely, but it's very likely many of them, like Edna, lack companionship, because this is an age when people have to deal with things like the death of a spouse or grown children living elsewhere, and even friends passing away. As a result, we've almost come to accept that experiencing loneliness in one's later years is simply part of the aging process.

 

Judy (01:54):

Well, this is a huge topic, but we simply have to start by talking about ageism.

 

Jeremy (02:00):

Absolutely. You know, we live in a world where ageism is deeply entrenched. Not just in this country, but throughout the Western world. We see older people becoming increasingly frail and dependent, and it frightens us a little bit. Maybe it reminds us of our own mortality. So maybe best to avoid looking in that direction. And if you add to this, society's judgment that if you're not working, you're not valued -- well, at least economically. And so we end up forming these horrible negative attitudes towards older people and all that negativity ends up making them feel even more isolated and lonely.

 

Judy (02:34):

And I just want to add that I do think the media plays a huge role in perpetuating ageism because getting older is often portrayed as a crisis or a societal burden. I've seen terms like 'gray tsunami' or a 'demographic cliff,' or even 'time bombs' used to describe the aging population, which is just awful.

 

Jeremy (02:55):

It makes me so mad. You know, we need a cultural shift in our attitudes towards older people because well, with any luck, we're all going to get there one day.

 

Judy (03:04):

So all of this really came into focus for you during your volunteer work, right, Jeremy? 

 

Jeremy (03:09):

That's absolutely the way it happened. You know, I started volunteering for Covia about a year ago. I signed up for one of their programs called Social Call that partners volunteers, like myself, with an older person for a weekly phone conversation. So I call Edna once a week and then another lady Shirley, who we'll be hearing from a little later, and I'm sure I get as much out of it, if not more, than they get out of it. I really look forward to the calls. Actually, it's never a burden or an obligation. I'm not like some savior coming in to save older people. I get as much out of it as I could ever have imagined. We talk freely. They want to know about my life and my family. And I want to know about theirs. And so we cover everything depending on what we feel like that particular evening.We talk about politics. We talk about sometimes the fear they may have about dying. Or, it might be about books. Whatever the subject is, that's what we talk about. It goes wherever it goes, kind of like any friendship does really. If you're genuinely curious about them, they'll tell you things that really are interesting. And if you look way beyond the physical shell of a person, to the spirit of them and the life they've led, and you realize that even if they're past their prime, in terms of physical health, they have never stopped being curious. And they remain vital and spiritually involved in such a way that you realize that seniors shouldn't just be shuffled off to God's waiting room. Because they can be, and they should be, vital members of society. You know, we accept certain realities about aging, but we should never accept that the brain stops working, or stops longing, or the body stops wanting or yearning. There's a lot that seniors have to contribute. If only we goddamn let them.

 

Judy (04:46):

You want to tell me how you really feel, Jeremy? Okay, well now it's time for our first guest, Katie Wade, the director of social call, which is the organization that Jeremy volunteers with. Katie will also discuss -- in slightly more measured notes -- ageism and the programs her organization offers that helps seniors make those social connections they need to enjoy a more fulfilled and connected life.

 

Jeremy (05:19):

So I'm talking right now to Katie Wade. Maybe Katie, you could just explain what you do in brief terms and what your position is and what your responsibilities are with Social Call.

 

Katie Wade (05:31):

Sure. And thanks for having me, Jeremy. So I am the director of Social Call, which is really a social connection program. We primarily work with older adults, so adults over 60, to find creative, new friendships. And so we are partnering older adults and community volunteers throughout the United States together for weekly phone conversations. And our goal there is create social connections. And along the way, we hope to alleviate loneliness.

 

Jeremy (06:01):

What are the circumstances that seniors might find themselves in that might lead to loneliness in your experience?

 

Katie Wade (06:08):

If we take a real bird's eye view of the situation we can find within our society that there aren't a lot of avenues for older adults to remain connected in society. If you don't have familial value, like you're not caregiving, or you aren't in the workplace and have economic value, then there aren't a lot of other avenues to stay connected as an older adult. Also loss of life. So people around you die and you lose those relationships. And widows, the loss of a spouse and how that affects one's loneliness. And then the final thing I see is children who want their older parents to come live with them for safety reasons. So they might say, "Mom, I know you have a community in Arizona but can you please move to Ohio so I can know you'll be safe and we'll check on you every day or you can live with us." Well-intentioned, but what happens is you lose your whole community when you make that move.

 

Jeremy (07:02):

If you could tell a first time volunteer your feelings about Social Call, its purpose and the good it's doing and so forth, how would you engage with them and tell them how to think of the upcoming work that they're about to do?

 

Katie Wade (07:15):

Yeah. Social call started in 2010 in San Francisco and the Bay area as a friendly visiting programs. We were matching volunteers and older adults together for weekly in-person visits, typically in the home of the older adult. And then maybe a year and a half ago as a response to request from older adults, we launched social call by phone. And so we are making matches that are entirely phone-based visits with people throughout the United States, both the volunteer and the older adult. They meet together about 30 minutes each week on the phone, um, depending on the, the match and they experience swapping stories and sharing and learning about each other and some creative conversations. And we hope to really blur those lines of who's making and receiving so that it feels like both parties are gaining a new and meaningful relationship with someone they would otherwise never meet and their daily life, which is pretty cool.

 

Jeremy (08:18):

This is about a two way conversation. This isn't a passive experience, just sort of, how was your day? How was your week? And then after the clock has hit whatever, you just end it. It seems that you're promoting, more than many other places, a form of more engaged, two way enrichment sort of experience. Is that fair?

 

Katie Wade (08:39):

That's exactly right. And so Gene Cohen in "The Mature Mind" lays out the brain health research around why older age is a time of creativity and innovation. And he essentially posits through his research projects that the two hemispheres of the brain start working together in a way that we don't have access to when we're younger. You know, this is not new research, but it is not mainstream knowledge. And I was really taken by this idea that older age is a time of creative growth and innovation because it resoundly mimicked my personal experience working with older adults. Once you view older age through that lens, you can no longer have a program that's set up to give a charitable service to an older adult in need. Like, Oh, actually we see the value of older adults. How do we emphasize that that both sides of the match have equitable value in the relationship?

 

Judy (09:41):

Wow. You know, social connections are clearly key for older adults. And it's not surprising since this is a time when people, especially those over the age of 80, find themselves alone.

 

Jeremy (09:53):

Actually during my conversation with Edna, she spoke so touchingly about how much she values the friends she still has. It was a constant theme of hers. She might be in her nineties but she's very, very smart, has all her faculties. And she has a host of stories that she just wants to tell people. And, actually, Shirley is a great example of someone who has so much to offer in terms of stories and interests. Shirley is almost 70, she's blind. And interestingly, she's married. Happily so, by her account. So we had a great conversation when we were getting to know each other about why it was that she identified herself as being lonely, despite having a loving partner at home.

 

MUSIC

 

Shirley (10:34):

Well, I think it's the fact that first of all, when you're with someone day in and day out, um, you feel like you need somebody different to bounce things off of, uh, someone that'll communicate with you. That's not necessarily with you 24 hours a day. Sometimes you sorta get a little tired of listening to each other, no matter how much you care about each other or anything else. You sort of need a different perspective. And sometimes you also tend to unconsciously tune each other out when you're together all the time. I would say probably to me just having another set of ears to listen to you and another opinion. And I happen to have a spouse who, although he's a very good person, he's not much of a communicator, you know, not that he won't answer a question or whatever, but to really get into a conversation about something, you know, is a tough thing to do, you know? Well, for those reasons, sometimes it’s just nice to have another person to communicate with.

 

Jeremy (11:54):

How does being blind, if it does at all, does it affect your need for connection? Or does it deepen it? Or does it make it specific or particular in a certain way that it might not to a sighted person?

Shirley (12:09):

Oh yeah. This social distancing thing for blind people is double, or maybe five times, harder than it is for the average person. Because if you're going to take transportation -- we have special services that we can use, but who wants to be using transportation when you're in with a bunch of other people. And if you want to go into a store, you know, you're afraid to put your hands on anything. Cause you know, you really don't want to touch stuff that you don't know who touched last. And you know, we do our whole world by touch. So, you know, the average person can get in their car and go wherever they want to go. Not that I could get in my car and go wherever I want to go any other time, but it....

 

Jeremy: (12:59)

That's good to know! 

 

Shirley: (13:01)

 

Yeah. Till I get that Google car, you know, that's self-driving.

 

Jeremy (13:07):

You're the only person I know who's a ham radio aficionado, specialist, a hobbyist, whatever you'd like to call it. How did you get into ham radio? How does it give you pleasure? What, why are you interested in this field?

 

[RADIO SOUNDS]

 

Shirley (13:22):

It was a good way to communicate with people, especially for me as a blind person. It was a hobby that I could get into that a lot of blind people got into that didn't necessarily have to be inhibited because of the fact that I am a blind person. Most of it could be done without any sight. And if you were communicating with a person from a distance on ham radio, they never had to know that you were blind, unless you chose to share that information or it came up in a conversation. And we could do probably 90% of the things in the hobby that a sighted person could do and still be very much a part of it, whether it's just communicating with a person for fun, uh, talking back and forth, or helping in an emergency situation, which I have actually helped in several, uh, emergencies. And some of it's just fun. And you can communicate locally with people. You can communicate nationally or internationally. And you know, for me, especially with the local communication, it's been a good way for us to make some connections, make friends, meet people. Um, we made a couple of very close friends through ham radio.

 

Jeremy (14:53):

One of the reasons I love, well, listening to you is because you're so insightful and you're conceptual and you get the issues quickly and you can articulate a response.

 

Shirley (15:04):

I can just sit here and listen to your accent forever. And I don't have to say anything. And, you know, it really doesn't even matter what you say as long as I can just sit there and listen to your accent. That makes me happy.

 

[MUSIC]

 

Jeremy (15:21):

It's time for our final guest, Dr. Louise Hawkley, who is a senior research scientist at the university of Chicago in Illinois. Most of her research has been dedicated to studying loneliness among seniors. So she seemed like the perfect person for us to speak with. Here's Dr. Hawkley giving us her informed opinion on loneliness among older adults.

 

Dr Louise Hawkley (15:44):

Well, what we see is somewhat of a decrease in loneliness from 50 to about 70. So the increase and you alluded to this is really in the oldest, old age group. So it's when you get 80 plus years old that you'll see levels of loneliness starting to increase. And it's typically the kind of thing you'd explain by losses that people experienced. The older you get, the more likely you are to have lost not only a spouse, but maybe siblings and other family members and friends. And so you're really losing a lot of your social network and your health limitations may be such that you can't compensate adequately. So it gets easier to understand that an oldest old age, you're going to get more lonely. 

 

Jeremy (16:34):

How do you look at loneliness to sort of break it down so that someone can understand that it isn't just a one size fits?

 

Dr Louise Hawkley (16:40):

Right. Yes. Research we did, oh this is back in the early 2000s/ late 90s, replicated in a variety of populations and showed that if we use the 20 item loneliness scale, we can actually parse it out into different, you might say, types of loneliness. That there's an aspect of loneliness that has to do with your sense of not feeling connected to an intimate other, maybe not having an intimate other. In fact, if you don't have a partner, you probably would be slightly more lonely on that aspect of the loneliness scale, if you want to call it that, than would somebody who has a spouse. There's also a relational component. So people who lack a sense of having a confidence, somebody that can share really important things with that is another aspect that some people are feeling deprived of, even though they may have a partner. So they might not feel very lonely on that intimate scale, but they do feel somewhat lonely on the relational scale. And then finally, another type that we call a collective type of connectedness or loneliness, and that's this sense of belonging to a larger entity, having an identity that puts you into the mix in an important group. It could be your community. It could be the society. It could be, you know, people who are peripheralized, who are not accepted in the usual functioning of a, of a community or society are going to be more prone to feel that lack. And you can think here of any peripheral population, whether that's an LGBTQ folks, whether it's minority status folks. So that's where we may want to focus more of our attention these days. Because there is a lot of that going on right now, a lack of a collective sense of connectedness.

 

Jeremy (18:45):

It seems that the model that we use now to get ahead and stay ahead until recently, of course, was, um, it's sort of anti society. It's very much about the individual, and until society has a sweeping change of its role and how much it needs to look at its policymaking through the lens of connectivity and community, we’re not going to do much apart from nibble around at the edges and maybe the odd, good volunteer and the odd, good small project, which is not to be knocked, but it has to be taken on. Do you, are you a believer in that you've looked at it for so long, this issue?

 

Dr Louise Hawkley (19:23):

Yeah, definitely. So there is a need, I think, to not only include what's happening inside people's heads, but the environment around them, because you can either impair or facilitate these negative processes that people are prone to engage in at times. And I think we have a lot of systemic work to do, to facilitate the best and not the worst. And I think intergenerational contact is one of those ways that we create value both in the younger people who are doing the interacting with the older, but also for the older people, because as relationships are formed, you start seeing value and, you know, your identity, your esteem increases accordingly.

 

Jeremy (20:14):

Could you start telling me about projects that have interested you as really successful or have the potential to be, you know, expanded if, if they were taken seriously?

 

Dr Louise Hawkley (20:26):

Wow, that is such a full field. There are certainly a lot of examples. I've been tracking a little bit of the AARP foundations work. They've got a website called 'Connect2Affect.' And on that website, you as an older adult, or even somebody who knows an older adult who you want to help, you can enter what you need help with. And you could say social isolation and it'll ask you what zip code are you writing from. And then it'll pop up a map that says, okay, in your area, there's this, this, this, this organization that addresses what you say you need. And then you get contact information. You can call and find out, visit whatever you need to do to get that need addressed. There's the old age technology support group. There's also 'Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly.' This is an international group. They have chapters in various locations across the US including one in Chicago. And their mission is to resolve social isolation and loneliness. These isolated people are often lacking in the social contact for like two weeks at a time. So these are volunteers who come in and have, at least during non pandemic times, have face-to-face visits there with these people. And it has to be a minimum of, you know, X hours per every other week or something like that. So they form relationships, they form friendships.

 

Jeremy (22:05):

Is there one program that really just hits the sweet spot for you when it comes to helping older people feel they have some level of determination in their life and academic interest?

 

Dr Louise Hawkley (22:16):

Yeah. I can't say that there's any one. Although I keep coming back to 'Experience Corps,' because I think it's such a great model for intergenerational work that's purposeful. It provides a sense of meaning. It does create relationship. It hits a lot of the high marks and there's even some empirical evidence showing that it has improved these older adults outcomes, as well as the kids' outcomes.

 

Jeremy (22:41):

If I'm just talking about seniors, what generalized advice would you give to the family of a lonely person? How they can help and how the, the lonely person, the lonely senior can help themselves and move towards, or try to move towards a better place?

 

Dr Louise Hawkley (22:59):

Yeah, in current society, I'll have a certain image that comes to mind when I think of that: A family with maybe school aged kids and they've got grandma who's living alone. You know, maybe it's in the same town. Maybe it's not, let's say it is in the same town and she's not able to get out like she used to. They're very caught up with their own family, their family lives and managing their careers and so on. So they're probably strapped for giving grandma the attention that she might want from them. And she doesn't want to be a burden and she's not going to ask for it. So I think the challenge is for the family to find a way to ground themselves in what's important and meaningful over the long haul. And I have a little bit of optimism that the pandemic is starting to do that for people, that there is value to devoting time and attention to grandma as a family. Meaning not just doing tasks for her or dropping in to just to show they're still there, but having deep, meaningful times. Maybe it's reminiscing. Maybe it's going together to some outing, that kind of approach. Always keeping in mind that grandma has her own ideas as to what's important. So staying sensitive to and asking what would be special to you, offering ideas, listening to what ideas she might have, figuring out how one can do this. It's a complicated, scenario I'm painting here.

 

Jeremy (24:48):

No, no, it's a beautiful, beautiful end summation. And well you have been a delight to engage with because I've got a personable interviewee plus rich content from a career of this also. I thank you so much. I really appreciate it. 

 

Dr Louise Hawkley: (25:04)

Oh, you're very welcome.

 

Judy: (25:09)

We went deep into age-ism today. But there's a reason for that. Ageism and loneliness are intertwined. Society chronically rejects its older citizens and this often makes them withdraw from social participation all together.

 

Jeremy: (25:24)

Absolutely. And while we have wonderful resources like social call and others through AARP, which do help alleviate the sense of disconnection in seniors, honestly, the most effective loneliness buster is simply for us to stop discriminating against this age group.

 

[MUSIC]

 

Edna: (25:44)

Anyway...

 

Jeremy: (25:46)

I'm about to go and have some dinner now. So I tell you what I'm going to do--

 

Edna: (25:50)

What are you having for dinner? 

 

Jeremy: (25:50)

Well, do you want to come round and have some supper with us? 

 

Edna: (25:53)

Of course, I'll be there as long as it takes me to put on some different clothes on. 

Jeremy (26:02):

Alright. Hop over to LAX, get on a plane -- it's probably about a six hour flight and I'll pick you up at Kennedy.

 

Edna (26:07):

Yeah. That's a good idea. Yes. And I'll bring you a nice bouquet of flowers and a big box of chocolates. 

 

Jeremy: (26:14)

Excellent. I'm in heaven.

 

[MUSIC]

 

Judy (26:20):

On our next episode, "Being Alone," I'll speak with Dr. Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist in New York who believes that Buddhism can enrich Western approaches to psychology through an investigation of the self. And that includes how we deal with loneliness.

 

Jeremy (26:42):

Is anybody there was created and written by Judy D'Mello and Jeremy Warshaw.

 

Judy (26:44):

This episode was produced and edited by Christian Sawyer. Music by Seaplane Armada.

 

Jeremy (26:53):

If you're enjoying this podcast, and we hope you are, please rate us on Apple podcasts.

 

Judy: (26:14)

And do subscribe wherever you download your podcasts. 

 

Jeremy: (26:14)

For more information about what you heard today, please visit the connectory.com. Let's stay connected!

 

 

Dr. Louise Hawkley

Dr. Louise Hawkley is a research scientist at the National Opinion Research Center, affiliated with the University of Chicago. She is a co-investigator on the NIA-funded panel study, the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project (NSHAP), and the Principal Investigator of the NSHAP COVID supplemental study which began in September 2020. Her research contributions are predominantly in the area of perceived social isolation (loneliness) and health during aging. She is a founding member of the International Loneliness and Isolation Research Network (ILINK), and a member of the Scientific Advisory Committee for the Coalition to End Social Isolation & Loneliness.

Katie Wade, MEd, LPC

Katie Wade, MEd, LPC, is passionate about ensuring we all have access to creative means of connecting with ourselves and others as we grow older. A constant thread in her work, since her very first internship, is our great need for meaningful social connection. After working as a mental health therapist with older adults in an inpatient setting, Katie maintained a private practice while providing social connection programming and other services to older adults and caregivers, and now nurtures and grows innovative creative aging programs. She is the director of Social Call, a social connection program for older adults.