32. How to Help Older Adults with Social Isolation and Loneliness

Published August 25, 2021

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Show Notes

Sue Peschin, President and CEO of the alliance for Aging Research, chats with Mark Meridy, Executive Director of DOROT. DOROT’s mission is to decrease social isolation and loneliness among older adults, which is more important than ever.

Learn more about DOROT: https://www.dorotusa.org.

Episode Transcript

Sue Peschin:

Hi everyone and welcome to This Is Growing Old, a podcast from the Alliance for Aging Research. I’m Sue Peschin. I’m your host and I serve as President and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research. Today, I’m speaking with Mark Meridy, Executive Director of DOROT. DOROT’s mission is to decrease social isolation and loneliness among older adults, which is more important than ever. Mark, welcome to This Is Growing Old.

Mark Meridy:

Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Sue Peschin:

Well, as we mentioned, you’re the Executive Director of DOROT, which harnesses the power of thousands of volunteers to address social isolation and loneliness among older adults. Can you tell our listeners about how DOROT accomplishes this?

Mark Meridy:

Sure. As you indicated, our mission is to address the issue of social isolation and loneliness and one of the ways that we go about doing this is through our intergenerational programming. I think one of the things that distinguishes DOROT is our commitment to excellence, which is to say that we don’t take things for granted and this holds true for how we engage and work with volunteers and our older adults. What we do is very deliberate and it’s really strategic. I think one of the key elements is that we treat everyone, regardless of age, with the utmost of respect. We find that working and training and setting out clear expectations for what everybody is to do. We have been able to see great success in terms of our engagement of volunteers over our history as an organization. One of the important elements here is that both the older adult and the volunteer, and sometimes they’re… We have volunteers of all ages. We find that the experience is mutually exclusive and mutually beneficial. That is to say that everybody comes away from the experience feeling really good about their volunteering engagement.

Mark Meridy:

And prior to the pandemic, most of our programming was all in-person here in New York City and in Westchester. We did have some virtual programming, but since the pandemic and all of our programming is now virtually, we have volunteers from 45 states, which is really pretty incredible and we are so grateful for the outpouring of support of our volunteers.

Sue Peschin:

It sounds like you’ve actually gone up in terms of the number of volunteers or the number of states you cover. Is that what you’re saying?

Mark Meridy:

Yeah. Last year we had over 6,000 volunteers. And before that, most of our volunteers came from the New York metropolitan area. But as a result of a number of different interviews that I was fortunate to be able to participate in at the start of the pandemic and throughout the pandemic where people were interested in talking about what we’re talking about today, which is social isolation and loneliness, volunteers just started to reach out from across the country wanting to know what they could do to help.

Sue Peschin:

That is so awesome. I mean, I want to ask you, I would love for you to go into what are some of the health risks of social isolation and loneliness, but I’d also love to hear a bit about the benefits of the volunteering.

Mark Meridy:

Sure. So I think that the volunteering is one of the things that we have found for that the volunteers that we work with are everywhere from families with young children, to older adults who are volunteering. One of the things that we have found is that in today, for the first time really in human history, we have people that are living longer than at any other time. And if people are retiring at the age of 65 or 70, that leaves another sometimes 20, 30 years where people have a lot of extra time and where older adults are actually have a tremendous value to our society. And what we’ve seen is that when they volunteer that they feel that they are enriching their own lives, but they’re also able to enrich the lives of people that they are working with. And for our younger volunteers, they feel like that they have an opportunity to engage with somebody who has a vast amount of experience, wonderful, very interesting, sometimes very troubling life stories and it really is mutually beneficial when everybody participates and has an opportunity to stay socially engaged and connected, particularly during this past 18 months of this pandemic.

Mark Meridy:

So the other part of your question was what are some of the health risks of social isolation and loneliness? I want to make a distinction between the two because actually we see it as two different phenomenon. So social isolation is having a few relationships and infrequent contact with others, whereas loneliness is an emotion. It’s a subjective feeling that people feel when they are isolated. But either way, social isolation and loneliness is a seriously underappreciated public health crisis because what we have seen and what research shows is that social isolation and loneliness can have devastating healthcare consequences for everybody, but it’s especially true for older adults.

Mark Meridy:

So one of the things that research has shown is that social isolation and loneliness can result in increased levels of high blood pressure, heart disease, early onset of dementia and even premature death. And researchers, including Julianne Holt-Lunstad from Brigham Young University ran a huge study and a few years ago they concluded that isolation and loneliness can have the same damaging health effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Now, one of the reasons why this is so important is, to be perfectly candid, the issue of social isolation and loneliness was never really on people’s radar screens. So those of us who… I’ve spent most of my career in the field of aging, and as you know, we have been focused on helping older adults to live independently, have food security, income security, but not that many people have really been focusing on the issues of social engagement and the importance and the critical nature of providing an opportunity for older adults to have a sense of purpose, to remain engaged and connected.

Mark Meridy:

It was once this study came out, however, a lot more people started talking about the critical nature of social isolation and loneliness and how important it was because of the devastating healthcare consequences. Because of that, it’s been a lot more… it’s been taken a lot more seriously.

Sue Peschin:

I think we’ve seen a lot of news reports and also studies that have come out to show that social isolation and loneliness has been a major issue for older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you think this has impacted the mental health of older adults?

Mark Meridy:

To be honest, it’s been simply devastating. We have seen our social work staff have worked tirelessly along with our volunteers of reaching out to people and helping them to stay engaged and connected, but one of the things that we’re finding is that there are significant increased levels of anxiety and depression. I think over the course of the pandemic that the different emotions have changed. At the very beginning, there was tremendous anxiety and fear about going out. There was tremendous anxiety about getting sick and having to go out to go to the doctor or worse getting COVID because we know that older adults have been some of the most vulnerable populations to be impacted negatively by COVID-19. The fact that people who have family were not able to connect with them, they were unable to connect with friends, their friends and their partners and their spouses were in the hospital and they weren’t able to go visit them.

Mark Meridy:

As a result of all of this, we’ve seen a significant increase in anxiety and great fear about what’s happening next and that has led to folks being really… facing significant decline in both their cognitive abilities, as well as putting off getting the important medical treatments that they really needed to get. So one of the things that we do on a pretty regular basis is that we confer with a number of gerontologists and infectious disease specialists here in New York City. One of the things that they kept urging us was to encourage the older adults that we’re working with not to put off the serious… having their serious healthcare needs met because one of the things that they found was that these gerontologists and infectious disease specialists we’re finding that many older adults were putting off receiving their critical health care.

Mark Meridy:

And as a result, their conditions were getting even worse. So people who are suffering from diabetes, if they weren’t managing their diabetes well, then they became even much more… it became much more severe and much more acute and much more dangerous. One of the things that we’ve also seen is that because of the loss of normalcy, because of the lack of predictability, this has been an extremely difficult time for the older adults that we have been working with.

Sue Peschin:

Yes. I think the CDC refers to it as excess deaths, right, the over expected and not just in the area of COVID. Yeah, it has been devastating is the correct way to describe it. You talked about this a little bit at the beginning, but I’d like you to go into a little bit more about why you think it’s important for people of different generations to connect with each other.

Mark Meridy:

Sure. As I indicated, I’ve spent most of my career in the field of aging. And when I was approached about this position, I had been living in Washington DC with my family. I had not heard of DOROT before, but when I learned that our model is about bringing the generations together, it reminded me of I was in high school and I participated in a youth group and we went to visit seniors in the nursing home. Now, many of my friends who were in high school at the time, they weren’t so excited about this activity, but I just had a great affinity for the seniors and I loved just going in and talking to these older adults. I had a wonderful personal relationship with my grandparents. When I saw the opportunity to lead this organization, I really jumped at the opportunity because I believe that by bringing the generations together we are building a much more empathetic, compassionate and understanding community.

Mark Meridy:

We find that when we bring our high school and teen interns and our college interns who have made the decision to engage with us, that when they’ve had an opportunity to meet with older adults who are, in many cases, very different than themselves, both in terms of experience, ethnicity, backgrounds, life experiences obviously, that people have a much greater appreciation and understanding for other people’s lived experiences and it has become truly a mutually beneficial experience for everyone. One of the things that we have seen in our own research is that many of the program participants after participating either as a friendly visiting match or participating in our intergenerational programming, they personally have a tremendous sense of satisfaction after visiting with one another.

Mark Meridy:

And of course, that is our brains releasing a chemical of oxytocin, which gives us that sense of calm and safety. By being able to engage with others, that our brains have this chemical reaction and make us feel even better. Because of that and because of being able to bring the generations together, it really has a remarkable impact on all of the individuals who work with us, regardless of their age.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah. It’s like a secret sauce to life I think, one of the secret sauces.

Mark Meridy:

Absolutely.

Sue Peschin:

I was wondering for folks who are listening and interested in getting involved in decreasing social isolation and loneliness, what can they do? Where would you direct them?

Mark Meridy:

So, oh my gosh, first of all, it’s so easy. Just pick up the telephone and call an older friend or a neighbor. Recognizing that COVID is still with us and it can be a little dangerous, but if you’re vaccinated and you’re wearing a mask, you can go knock on the door of your neighbor and just check in on them and see how they’re doing or you can pick up the phone. If you have an aunt, you have a grandparent, you have your parents that you haven’t spoken to in quite a while, don’t forget them. They are waiting to hear from you. Being able to either pick up the phone or arrange a time for people to be able to use FaceTime or Zoom or many of these other platforms, it’s really a wonderful opportunity for friends and family to connect, but it has to be something which is done deliberately. People just can’t wait for somebody else to call.

Mark Meridy:

But many of the people who volunteer with DOROT and who are recipients of our programs, they really don’t have an awful lot of family. Therefore, that’s why, for DOROT, we encourage people to reach out to us, to volunteer with us so that we can match them with an older adult and have them make weekly phone calls during this really difficult time. Now, we have an extensive friendly visiting program where historically we have matched volunteers up with an older adult and they will go and they’ll meet on a weekly basis. We are still having that in person programming, asking people to be vaccinated, masks and meeting outside, but because of the tremendous need, we have developed a Caring Calls Program where it’s basically friendly visiting over the telephone and we match volunteers up with older adults and we encourage them to reach out and speak to one another at least once a week.

Mark Meridy:

We’ve developed some really wonderful friendships over this timeframe. There’s that opportunity. But then also for older adults, it’s really important to stay engaged and connected. So through DOROT, we have a University Without Walls Program and a program called Onsight @Home. So University Without Walls is a program where we have small groups of people who get on the telephone. It crosses the digital divide because, believe it or not, there are still so many older adults who either don’t have new enough computers, don’t have the internet or bandwidth capabilities of really being able to do Zoom or FaceTime or other types of ways of connecting. We have this program, which is over the telephone, and we have partnerships with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Whitney Museum, a number of museums across the country, where we have classes about art.

Mark Meridy:

We have classes about politics and current events. We provide services and programs for people who are losing their sight. We have facilitators who help be able to condition and train and work with older adults who are losing their vision so that they can prepare for the inevitable. The other piece of this is that we have opportunities for people to participate in book groups and discussion groups. This is all done over the telephone in small groups so as to encourage social engagement and connection. The other program, Onsight @Home, as I said, many of our programs were here onsite before the pandemic, all of our in-person programming has been suspended. Now, we have a weekly calendar that comes out on our website, dorotusa.org, and we have many classes on a weekly basis. And maybe we would have 25 or 50 people in our auditorium, we now have hundreds of older adults from across the country participating in this virtual programming and listening to these wonderful lectures and programs. And it’s free and I’d encourage people to give it a try.

Sue Peschin:

That’s awesome. I’m wondering, do you guys, do you work with Senior Villages and the Village movement?

Mark Meridy:

We do. We work with a number of different… both Section 202 housing, as well as a number of also senior housing in different parts mostly in Manhattan, but we are looking to really broaden our reach. We’re actually doing a Strategic Plan now and looking to develop opportunities for us to be able to have a much broader, wider reach than what we’re currently able to do because we think it is just absolutely essential and I feel so passionate about the work of providing the opportunity for older adults to remain engaged, connected, feel valued and worthy.

Sue Peschin:

That’s awesome. I volunteer with my local senior village and I was just thinking like if you do these classes and you do them over the phone, like all the villages should know about these. It would be amazing.

Mark Meridy:

Yeah. I think that one of the things that we have seen is that there is a tremendous demand and even after the pandemic. We have people that are participating virtually and we’ve been getting lots of emails from people saying, “Even though when you may resume in-person programming, please, please, please keep doing this virtual programming. It’s a lifeline for us. It gives me a sense of purpose. I have some place to go,” even though they’re not leaving their living room, but it helps them to stay engaged and connected with people and I think that is just so critically important. And there are certainly volunteer opportunities that many churches, synagogues, councils on aging, area agencies on aging, other organizations across the country are doing some really wonderful programming, which is a way for people to stay engaged and connected. Because particularly during this pandemic, we were all feeling isolated and alone.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah. I just like how you’re talking about how it’s important for people to have access via the telephone because not everybody has access to broadband. It’s a really good point that we try to make quite a bit and it’s just a great service that you’re offering, so I’m looking forward to us helping to spread the word about it. So here’s a question we ask all of our guests. When you were a kid, what did you imagine growing older would be like?

Mark Meridy:

That’s really interesting. So when I was younger, I really sort of imagined the typical, somewhat ageist view that all people are frail, they’re vulnerable, but certainly over the course of my career and by having this wonderful relationship with my grandparents, I saw that older adults are just an amazingly diverse… And it’s actually sort of hard to just group everybody together because it’s not a monolithic group of individuals, but I think that we face so much ageism in our community that people have this real vision, a negative vision, of what it means to grow old. I have been really fortunate both here at DOROT, as well as other organizations, to be able to have a complete transformation in terms of my vision of aging and what it means to be older.

Mark Meridy:

Because let me just say, it is just incredibly powerful to hear and meet with people in their mid to late nineties who are just continuing to rock it. I mean, they are just alive and well and vibrant and smart and engaging and have amazing life stories that it is really… just puts to shame that stereotype of what it means to grow old.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah. I totally agree with you. I mean, at the same time, you could be facing an illness and still have a vibrant life and still have personhood. I don’t think it’s always that you have to be of utmost health, but you’re right, I mean, there are a lot of people that are getting older now and staying healthy for a longer period of time.

Mark Meridy:

Right, but that’s not to say that there aren’t challenges. I mean, I think that we all know that as people grow older, there are physical, emotional changes that occur and that we as a society need to do a better job of meeting the healthcare needs of older adults.

Sue Peschin:

Absolutely. So what do you enjoy most about growing older now?

Mark Meridy:

Oh, my gosh. That’s such an interesting question. I think what I would say is… So I’m 61 and I think that one of the things that as I look back and look ahead is that I’ve seen life as an adventure and I have so enjoyed every single one of the stages of my life. I think that they’re all with significant rewards and significant challenges. I consider myself really fortunate that I’ve been happily married for 31 years. We have two beautiful children. One is 23, the other is 28. And as I have grown older, I’ve been able to see and how those changes from when I was first married or when I was in college or high school and all of those different stages have had unique characteristics. As I have grown older, I’m really very comfortable with where I am and I try to do my absolute best to enjoy and appreciate the moment and the beauty around us. I hope that I’ll be able to carry that optimism going forward.

Sue Peschin:

Mark Meridy of DOROT, thank you so much for joining us today. It was a pleasure.

Mark Meridy:

Thank you. It was great to be here.

Sue Peschin:

Thanks to all our listeners for tuning in to This Is Growing Old. Our intro and outro music is City Sunshine by Kevin MacLeod. Please stay tuned for new episodes every other Wednesday. And as always, you can subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify or anywhere else you listen to podcasts and please rate and review us if you’re enjoying the show. Thanks for listening to This Is Growing Old and have a great day.