On September 6, the New York Times published an important article about loneliness and social isolation amongst older adults. For those of us in senior services, or those of us who are entering or are already in our senior years, this isn’t new news. Life happens as we age, and the sad reality is that life, if we’re lucky enough to keep it, involves aging parts. With changing bodies come changing lives, and getting out and doing everything just isn’t as easy as it used to be.
Senior Center Without Walls, a program of Episcopal Senior Communities, has been addressing the needs of isolated older adults since 2004 by providing an array of phone groups allowing individuals to socially connect with each other from the comfort of their own homes. What began as a half hour conference call connecting six Bay Area seniors has grown into a national program that engages approximately 600 individuals across the country to over 70 phone and online groups every week.
Every group is created to meet the interests and needs of the diverse population calling in every day. Groups include health & wellness presentations, armchair travel, brain health, games, friendly conversation, support groups, and other special events.
Through volunteer facilitation, Senior Center Without Walls utilizes the wealth of knowledge, skills, and hobbies of our participant community. If there’s a will to start a group, there’s most likely a way to make it happen. One of the longest running and most popular groups is Bingo, which takes place three times a week. You heard correctly: Bingo, over the phone!
In addition to participant volunteers, Senior Center Without Walls partners with community organizations to provide supportive groups, health & wellness presentations, and other special events as a venue to get relevant and interesting information into a community often missed by traditional education and outreach efforts.
Although social isolation and loneliness know no bounds, the LGBTQ senior community is even more likely to suffer the effects of social isolation compared to their straight counterparts. Studies have shown that LGBTQ seniors are twice as likely to live alone, and are less likely to have traditional support structures in place to rely on as they age.
With an overarching goal of alleviating social isolation for all older adults, Senior Center Without Walls looks forward to expanding its partnership with Openhouse by including a bi-weekly supportive group for LGBTQ seniors beginning in October. LGBTQ Chat is an open group that will provide LGBTQ seniors an opportunity to socially connect with each other in a safe and supportive environment. Sylvia Vargas, Program Manager for Caring Connections, a friendly visitor program of Openhouse, will be facilitating the group and is “excited to be creating a safe and warm space for LGBTQ folks to engage with one another, share stories, laugh, and create new friendships.”
Senior Center Without Walls welcomes adults over the age of 60 to participate in groups at their convenience. Gratitude, a favorite for over a decade, will be offered 16 times each week during the fall session in English, Spanish, and Russian. Gratitude is a half hour call in which participants all share something they are thankful for. It’s virtually impossible to leave a gratitude group without a teary smile and a grateful feeling for being a part of such a supportive community.
It’s encouraging to know that more and more attention is being paid to elders in our community and the experience of aging. It’s also comforting to know that solutions can be simple, and involve as little as a phone and an interested community. A recent survey showed that approximately 70% of participants reported that calling and logging into Senior Center Without Walls groups increased their connection to others, reduced feelings of isolation, increased mental stimulation, and created a sense of community.
Manuel Martinez, Information and Assistance Specialist at Openhouse, has facilitated the Spanish-speaking Gratitude group since January and reports that “it’s such a joy to hear those at home share something positive about their lives. In that moment, we all feel alive and connected to each other.”
Senior Center Without Walls Fall Session began on October 10. To register, please contact Senior Center Without Walls: 877-797-7299, firstname.lastname@example.org, seniorcenterwithoutwalls.org
Amber Carroll, MFT, is the Director of Senior Center Without Walls, a program of Episcopal Senior Communities. Carroll has over twenty years of experience building programs that provide direct services and impact to the community. Since 2012, she has focused her attention on improving the lives of seniors.
Alzheimer’s Association Programs and Services:
Dr. Marcy Adelman oversees the Aging in Community column. For her summary of current LGBT senior challenges and opportunities, please go to: sfbaytimes.com/challenges-and-opportunties