Adapting Social Connection Opportunities for Lasting Engagement
Staying socially connected during the COVID-19 pandemic can be challenging, especially for older Texans who must adapt their social activities and essential travel to follow social distancing recommendations. Social isolation and loneliness are receiving more attention, and research shows a decline in health and higher costs in health care for people who identify as lonely or isolated.
Living with social isolation can have serious ramifications such as an increased risk of dementia and a shortened lifespan. The significance of this public health issue has been on the rise. Medicare costs associated with social isolation were $6.7 billion in 2018, according to an AARP study. Underrepresented groups, such as older adults who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer, can experience a greater risk of social isolation.
The Texas Health and Human Services’ Age Well Live Well campaign promotes healthy aging and provides helpful resources and expertise for older adults. To support this mission, two new fact sheets are available to provide information and resources for staying connected, informed and nutritionally healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Designing programs that identify, engage and adapt to the unique issues facing underrepresented communities can present challenging ― yet innovative ― opportunities. A new, first-of-its-kind congregate meal program through Meals on Wheels Central Texas in Austin, is designed for LGBTQ older adults and has sparked a strong community response for services and social connections.
Although the new congregate meal program is temporarily closed because of the pandemic, MOWCTX continues to nourish and enrich the lives of the participants with:
Weekly curbside meal distribution at sites.
Client take-home activity packets (games, puzzles) included with a week’s supply of lunches.
New virtual learning opportunities (digital workshops, bingo).
Sarah McKenna, Director of Congregate Senior Centers, says that the new program for LGBTQ older adults is a community-driven effort and members are eager for the return of the in-person program. “The time the participants spend together is very important to them. Some even travel from the surrounding rural communities to attend,” McKenna said. “Matching social opportunities with individual strengths and interests is key to lasting engagement.”
Adapting current social connection opportunities can be essential to lifelong engagement. The whole community benefits when the needs of older residents are considered and addressed through innovative ideas and creative planning. Programs that provide a safe space for underrepresented groups or resources that provide information on staying connected are a few of the strategies Texans have taken to reduce social isolation.
Written by: Claire Irwin, Age Well Live Well Coordinator and Ully Sedtal, VISTA Leader