If we know that social isolation is linked to declines in health and mortality, it’s alarming how little we do to remedy loneliness for the elderly, a demographic more prone to social disconnection than most. Part of the reason for our inaction is that we’ve jigged society in such a way that we can live our lives without ever seeing the problem. We keep our seniors out of sight, and therefore out of mind and heart. Unlike in other cultures where the elderly are taken into homes for family care, North Americans will likely spend their final days in nursing homes segregated from mainstream society. Of course, such places can be great, and many seniors have positive experiences in them, but many seniors without family or friends live in such ghettoized worlds without any access to the broader community beyond the walls. They spend their days with other seniors and support staff, but do not interact with the communities from which they’ve been extracted. And the members of the community rarely, if ever, enter the cloistered environs of the seniors’ home.
This arrangement we’ve constructed with our elderly neighbours is not benign. Our jigging not only keeps us from seeing the problem, it is the problem.
But there are signs of hope. People around the world, aware of these structural problems, are working hard to rejig society. In the Netherlands, for example, the Humanitas nursing home in Deventer developed a program where university students are incentivized with free rent to live with the elderly. These students must spend thirty hours per week being “good neighbours,” which can involve sharing a meal, watching a film, or keeping company when someone falls ill. These intergenerational homes have proved to be a gift not only for seniors but also for the students, who are able to learn from the wisdom of their unusual dorm-mates.