By LuAnne Speeter, Communications and Development Director, Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly
Have you checked out the skyline of the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs lately? Huge, steel cranes are everywhere, erecting more and more senior high rises. By this time next year, these buildings will be made up of thousands of tiny apartments housing elders who will remain inside, isolated and shut off from the rest of the world.
It’s estimated that there are 77,000 lonely, isolated older adults in the Twin Cities, and that number will multiply as the baby boom generation ages.
For many in our society, the seeds of elder isolation are planted in middle age. That’s the point when adults are faced with changes in family, especially as children leave the nest. For decades, being a parent dictates one’s social life with PTA meetings, sporting events and ballet competitions. As children move out and on their own, parents more often than not neglect to replace those social relationships. Spending time alone can then become a habit and a preference – often with adverse effects.
Research from Rush University Medical Center indicates that elders who are socially isolated are at greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as depression, heart disease, anxiety and other chronic conditions. Elders who lack social connections are also more likely to fall and suffer from substance abuse.
Greater risks for GLBT elders
But older members of the GLBT community are at an even greater risk of social isolation and its ill effects when compared to the general population. According to the LGBT Aging Needs Assessment, published in 2012, GLBT elders were more likely to live alone, less likely to have a caregiver as they age, and less likely to have children than the general population.
What’s more, less than one in five LGBT elders believe they would receive sensitive care if their sexual orientation were known, and half of those responding reported personally experiencing harassment, abuse or violence because of their sexual orientation.
Sociologists believe that it’s important to maintain social connections or form new ones as we age. Robert Putnam, in his bestselling book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” discusses how critical building and maintaining “social capital” throughout our lives is for the well-being of individuals and our society. It enhances our children’s education and welfare, ensures greater safety of our neighborhoods, promotes economic prosperity, improves political discourse, and even benefits our own health.
Join groups or volunteer to ward off isolation
The first step to preventing isolation as an elder is to seek out and nurture social connectedness. Joining new social groups, signing up for community education classes and volunteering for your favorite cause will help prevent the negative outcomes that often come with isolation – outcomes that may be irreversible later in life.
Prime Timers Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) and Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly (LBFE) are two non-profit organizations that are partnering to reduce social isolation and its risks among elders in the Twin Cities. Prime Timers MSP provides social, recreational and educational opportunities to gay and bisexual men over 50. Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly works to prevent and alleviate isolation and loneliness through staff- and volunteer-based companionship services and social activities that address the holistic needs of elders.
“Prime Timers was designed to be a social group and wasn’t meant to provide social services,” said Prime Timers’ Harry Hartigan. “We didn’t know how to connect our isolated elders who were in difficult situations. When I heard of Little Brothers from a friend I realized that’s just what we needed.” They referred an elder Prime Timers member, and Harry credits LBFE for helping him move into a senior building where he can receive greater care and support.
To date, about a dozen Prime Timers have received basic training as LBFE volunteers and now are Visiting Volunteers, Friendship and Flowers Visitors and Event Assistants. LBFE and Prime Timers also received an LGBT Aging Initiative grant through PFund. The grant will fund joint efforts over the next year to bring greater awareness of the risks of elder isolation within the LGBT community.
By working together, Prime Timers and Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly are confident they will have a greater impact on reducing elder isolation in the Twin Cities. The alliance will also allow LBFE to learn more about the risks and needs of GLBT elders, and its participant and volunteer base will better reflect the great diversity of the Twin Cities community.