Lifting Loneliness: PNA Social Connection Project helps isolated older adults
Our Social Connection Project aims to pair older adults with activities and opportunities for connection, like this Greenwood Senior Center trip to the Seattle Center. Photo: Ariel Burnett
By Julie Gangler
The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the pre-existing problem of social isolation, particularly among older adults. Given the statistics on isolation’s negative health impacts, the Greenwood Senior Center (GSC) started the Social Connection Project (SCP) last year. The project seeks to increase social connection among older adults by engaging them with their community.
“Our goal with the Social Connection Project is to engage, educate, and—just as importantly—learn from the community about the impact of social isolation on older adults,” said GSC Director Cecily Kaplan. “The project is particularly focused on inclusion, resource support for isolated elders, LGBTQIA+ elders, and elders affected by memory loss. We see this as a new vital part of our senior program.”
The GSC hired Teresa Tam in April 2021 as its SCP coordinator. Previously a federal healthcare analyst, Teresa has been involved as a PNA Village volunteer since 2016. As SCP coordinator, she educates the community about the programs that the GSC and others offer that can increase social connection. She also develops and implements new programming with input from the community.
Teresa wants people to know that “social connection is critical for both mental and physical health. Being socially isolated is more common than we think, and should not be stigmatized.”
Indeed, researchers at Brigham Young University found that lack of social connection can increase health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found more than one in four adults aged 50-plus reported that they felt isolated before the COVID-19 pandemic began. That number increased to more than one in two in 2020.
A key component of the SCP is the free social connection consultations Teresa offers to older adults who want to increase their level of social engagement. She helps them determine how to expand their social network and connect them to appropriate programs based on their interests and skills.
For example, a Bitter Lake woman saw an SCP flyer and contacted Teresa. She was feeling isolated because of the pandemic and wasn’t sure how or where to start reconnecting. Teresa determined she was interested in the arts and hesitant about technology. She suggested GSC’s improvisation group, the PNA Village Play Group, and convinced the woman to participate in a Zoom training course being offered by PNA Village volunteers so that she could connect with people virtually.
“Sometimes people just need a little nudge to get over their inertia,” said Teresa. “That’s really all this woman needed.” Another gentleman met with Teresa and explained he lived by himself and was feeling lonely since leaving the workforce. After speaking with Teresa, he joined the PNA Village and GSC’s Living Alone Group.
“My sister suggested I check out the nearby Greenwood Senior Center,” said Patrick McNierney, “which led to joining the PNA Village. Everyone has been friendly, understanding, and very helpful. At the Living Alone Group, we discuss solutions to problems that can be difficult for single seniors. The possible activities are extensive, and it feels good to be part of something.”
The GSC Men’s Group enjoys a trip to Golden Gardens Park on June 15, 2022. The group brings community members together for socializing and activities.
Teresa has started several other programs at the GSC, such as the Solo Agers Group. Solo agers are individuals who cannot or choose not to rely on family to help them navigate life events and make health decisions as they age. So, maintaining their social connections is particularly critical. The group helps solos plan for and manage health and well-being decisions and events—both large and small—during the second half of life.
The Solo Agers concept was designed by Linda Camp, an independent consultant and researcher. The current group is full, but to be added to a waiting list for potential future groups, please contact Teresa at [email protected] or 206.531.0061.
The SCP is funded by the King County Veterans, Seniors, and Human Services Levy.