With the coronavirus attacking society at a molecular level, it has also exacerbated another epidemic that can be somewhat hidden: loneliness.
More than 20 years ago, the political scientist Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” warned that Americans were increasingly withdrawing from each other and civic life and losing “social capital.”
In early 2020, before the pandemic hit, the Massachusetts Task Force to End Loneliness and Build Community — a coalition of senior center directors, town boards of selectmen, clergy, and nonprofit groups in the state — was created to try to turn back that rising tide of separation.
Now 17 months after many Americans had their worlds shrunk to computer screens and households, the task force next week will share some of its solutions with the Commit to Connect campaign, a federal public-private partnership, based in Washington out of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Covid brought to light the whole conversation of social isolation,” said Caitlin Coyle, a co-chair of the group and a research fellow at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who studies aging. “People from all walks of life had a taste of what it’s like to be isolated.”
Social isolation at any age increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent, and isolated adults aged 50 and older are about 50 percent more likely to develop dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Social isolation in the U.S. rose even as the Covid crisis began to subside in the spring, new research shows.
“It’s very serendipitous that we came together right when we needed to,” said Ms. Coyle, of her group. “We’re trying to bridge the gap between what we know about the problem and what we can do on the ground to effect change.”
Though the group began with a focus on better connecting older adults with their communities, she said, the ideas are applicable across all age groups. Some of the practices involve simple actions, like sending a letter or postcard to a family member or friend, or volunteering for an hour a week to help neighbors. Those form the core of the task force’s public awareness campaign #ReachOutMa.
“We want our work to be about building better communities,” Ms. Coyle said. “For me, it’s about building communities that are socially connected. It doesn’t matter about the age.”
Many Americans were isolated before the pandemic, and may not be able to “snap back,” to engage with a wide social network, Ms. Coyle said, even when the pandemic ebbs. Her task force acts as a clearinghouse for local programs: They want to know why it’s working and who it’s working for.
In Chelsea, a city of 35,000 across the Mystic River from Boston, representatives from social service agencies, the police and health advocacy groups convene weekly to share information about residents who might need help, and then quickly dispatch a team to offer support. Another program, Neighbor Brigade, sends a network of volunteers to help residents in crisis with meal preparation, rides, and chores.
Ms. Coyle calls those involved with such programs the “doer group,” and the task force held in-person gatherings in four regions of the state where hundreds of ideas — like prescription drop-offs by school bus drivers or senior shuttle drivers — were shared, so that they can be built upon.
“It takes a village,” she said. “We’ve drifted so far away from that. You’ve got to make that effort.”