The Talking Bench: An Innovative Way to Address Loneliness Among Older Adults
In London and elsewhere in the UK, the phenomenon of the “talking bench” has taken hold. No, these park benches don’t actually speak to you when you sit down. Rather, they are designated to encourage conversation, and as it turns out, play an important role in mitigating the loneliness that can plague older adults and others.
“The fact is some older adults can go for days without human contact, for a variety of reasons,” notes John Mastronardi, Executive Director of the Nathaniel Witherell. “And because older adults may be geographically separated from their families, or lose close friends, or suffer from hearing loss, live alone, be out of the workforce, or are divorced or widowed, they are at risk for becoming socially isolated and lonely.”
Loneliness can increase the risk of mortality by 50%
This is confirmed by a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) revealing that nearly one-fourth of adults 65 and older in the US are considered to be socially isolated. Besides the mental stress this causes, social isolation and loneliness can hinder one’s health, putting older adults at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression and cognitive decline, according to The National Council on Aging. Researcher Julianne Holt-Lundstad found that loneliness can increase the risk of mortality by 50%—higher than the effects of air pollution, obesity, and excessive alcohol use.
We often make the assumption that loneliness only affects older adults, but it affects young teens, GenZ, and Millennials as well. So, understanding the need for social connection and the value of friendship is important. The more we find ways to combat social isolation and foster social connections, the more we will help all those in our communities who are in need.
There are many resources available for communities and individuals
Many experts agree that the community has a role to play in reducing the impact of loneliness and building more social resiliency. Ideas for how to improve social connections and providing opportunities to engage with neighbors of all ages can come from community organizations. According to the AARP, such multigenerational friendships carry unique benefits: they broaden perspectives, strengthen resiliency, provide role models (especially among younger generations), and boost one’s energy.
Connect2Affect, spearheaded by AARP Foundation, seeks solutions in collaboration with the Gerontological Society of America; their featured resources include an Eldercare Locator and a mapping tool for visualizing social isolation. Other options include: Give an Hour; the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging; UnitedHealth Group; The Connecticut Collaborative to End Loneliness; For All Ages; and Age Well CT.
Mastronardi points out that technology also can be used for developing social connections, helping people maintain relationships, and providing emotional support. Even though some older adults may feel uncomfortable initially with digital connectivity, they can learn how to use these tools by asking for help.
“The more we understand about ways to combat social isolation and loneliness and foster social connection, the more we can help ourselves and others,” says Mastronardi.
Please say hello
So, if you see an older person sitting alone on a park bench, consider approaching them to have a chat. In doing so, you can make a huge difference in their lives. Besides, you might learn something new or even make a new friend.
“You can never really know what someone is experiencing deep down,” Mastronardi notes, “so having a place to sit down and have a chat with another person can be a good thing. And chatting on a public bench can help break down the social barriers of those sharing a common space.”
At the Witherell, we have many benches throughout our property – in the gardens, on the patios, and in front of our main building. Please say hello.