I have just boarded a plane, heading back to the Element3 Health headquarters in Denver, after spending two days at the Aging 2.0 Optimize Conference in San Francisco. As I settle into my seat and collect my thoughts, I am overcome with hopefulness and pride.
I am hopeful because the healthcare industry leaders who spoke at the conference acknowledged what many of us have long said: social isolation and loneliness are a major threat to our nation’s health and a growing contributor to rising healthcare costs.
And I am proud because I am flying back to Denver to a company that been delivering a solution to this problem for the last four years.
By engaging thousands of people from across the nation and getting them involved in social activities, we have seen how developing real bonds not only addresses loneliness but can even prevent it. We have learned that there is a direct a correlation between social isolation and mental and physical activity – that getting out and moving and connecting with others keeps people healthier longer.
While the healthcare industry is starting to realize that social isolation and loneliness are critical determinants of health, our team has been working to solve this problem for the last four years. What we’ve learned is this enormous problem does not require an enormously expensive solution. Associations, groups and clubs are powerful tools to keep people active, connected and healthy.
Can a sewing club lower your blood pressure? Yes. Can cycling with friends stave off dementia? Yes. Can playing pickleball keep depression at bay? You bet.
Everyone from group members to national associations have told us so. Both anecdotally and through surveys of members, we have learned that involvement in groups of likeminded individuals increases engagement, inspires activity and improves health.
Some speakers at the conference got close to expressing this, mentioning that proximity to others might be a solution to loneliness. In our experience, though, geographic density isn’t the answer. We have learned that an 80-year-old who keeps an active schedule of walking, volunteering, visiting friends, baking and playing bridge in Wyoming is less likely to be lonely than a 20-year-old who is living far from home in Manhattan.
Community doesn’t mean other people. It means other people who care.
Another theme I kept hearing at the conference is the notion that people can be “prescribed” solutions, as though telling someone to get involved and get connected could ever possibly work. After the age of three, I think it would be hard to force two people to become friends. But allow people with similar passions to connect over their shared interest, and a real relationship will form organically.
I know, because we’ve seen it in action. We’ve watched as embroidery clubs gather around new widows, filling their freezers with casseroles and offering hugs and help. We’ve seen how simple “I’m thinking about you” texts between members of a painting club can help someone dig their way up from depression. We have laughed with fly fishing leaders who have realized they spend almost as much time with fellow enthusiasts at coffee shops as they do on the water.
We have partnered with people who have improved their physical, mental and social health just by doing what they love, with people they like.
I am leaving San Francisco with a lot of ideas and inspiration. But more importantly, I am leaving with a stronger conviction that addressing social isolation and loneliness is not only imperative, it is possible. And that each bridge club, cycling group and knitting circle in this nation is doing it.
When the wheels of this plane touch back down in Denver, I’ll return to my team more energized than ever. A team that is focused on the issue of social, physical and mental activity. A group of colleagues – and friends – who are building a powerful solution.