A Recipe for a Connected Community

United Way has a long history of investing in programs and organizations that support older adults in our community. We asked the Greater Richmond Age Wave team to tell us about their Social Isolation Risk Index project.

By the Greater Richmond Age Wave Team

Ingredients:

  • Gerontologists
  • Urban planning researchers
  • Statewide and local aging and disability service providers
  • A fast-growing online case management system

Add a big scoop of innovation and pour into a person-centeredness framework. Fold in passionate educators, students and boots-on-the-ground expertise. Invite communities to join us at the table for an information potluck and contributions to the cookbook.

This has been our recipe for the Social Isolation Risk Index (SIRI) project for the past three years.

Household structure can impact a person’s well-being. Older adults who live alone can be at risk for social isolation and reduced quality of life if there are co-existing conditions such as poverty, lack of transportation, illness, disease or disability. Recent research has focused on the connection between social isolation and poor health. Studies have found that social isolation negatively impacts a person’s health equal in consequence to smoking, high blood pressure and obesity. People who are socially isolated may have weaker immune systems and recover more slowly from illness than people with strong social connections. People who are socially isolated are also more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

From 2011-2015, 28.9% of older adults in our region lived alone (42,521 adults age 65+).

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The SIRI project combines evidence from scientific literature, regional data analysis and community-based engagement to transform how we define and address social isolation and social connectedness in the Richmond metro area. The project kicked off in 2015, when project partners brought national experts together with aging and disability service providers in a region-wide symposium called Come Together. The symposium was attended by 150 key stakeholders, 97 percent of whom identified at least one action they could take to prevent or reduce social isolation among older adults.

In 2016, our interdisciplinary team researched social isolation risk factors and identified their matching data fields in No Wrong Door, a statewide online case management system. The following factors correlated to perceived social dissatisfaction in our region: family or financial conflict, educational attainment of less than a high school degree, living in apartments/multi-family dwellings. By approaching social isolation consequences proactively instead of reactively, we can make Richmond a better, healthier and more sustainable place for everyone to grow old. To that end we have reached close to 2,000 individuals with research-based information about social isolation and reached media circulation of 3.5 million+ with public messaging.

In focus groups held in rural, suburban, and urban localities of our region, older adults identified transportation as their greatest barrier to social connectedness. These results, along with the SIRI analysis, led Age Wave to link social isolation to livability with a goal to increase mobility and transportation infrastructure to decrease social isolation of older adults and persons with disabilities. Age Wave’s 2017 Transportation & Accessibility forum, attended by 100 people, resulted in 90 percent learning about transportation resources and sharing information with others.

By then we were ready for a deeper dive. Last summer we mapped the SIRI findings to identify seven neighborhoods in the region where people might especially benefit from increased connectedness. Urban planning and gerontology students canvassed these neighborhoods and conducted assessments of the relationship between the built environment and social connectedness. This spring, students used these findings to research and present actionable community advocacy opportunities to guide and inspire stakeholders.

Age Wave has contributed to the national body of research on the topic by presenting findings to the Gerontological Society of America, Southern Gerontological Association and Aging2.0. The interdisciplinary research team from VCU Gerontology and VCU Center for Urban and Regional Analysis recently published an article in The Gerontological Society of America Public Policy and Aging report, “Social Isolation and the Built Environment: A Call for Research and Advocacy.” The article recommends the expansion of information collected in uniform assessment tools to include key variables that capture how the individual interacts with their physical environment such as: transportation options, sense of safety in the community and proximity to or preferences for community amenities.

There is much more to come from this project as we find new ways to expand and enhance this recipe and bring more groups to the table. Interested in contributing to this cookbook? Please contact info@agewellva.com.

The authors wish to thank the following project partners: Greater Richmond Age Wave, United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg, VCU Gerontology, Virginia Department for the Aging and Rehabilitative Services, Senior Connections, No Wrong Door and VCU’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis.