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Creative Communities Are Addressing Social Isolation

Jan 7, 2019, 3:00 PM, Posted by Maryjoan Ladden

Social connections are not just nice to have—they can significantly affect our health and well-being. Inspired by creative approaches abroad, communities across the United States are taking steps to reduce social isolation and increase residents’ sense of belonging.

A man walks over a snow covered lawn.

It’s only January and already, I’m counting down the days to spring when warm weather will arrive. The long, cold months of winter can be isolating—the snow and subzero temperatures make it difficult to get out and about. Winter is particularly tough for children who can’t go outside to play, and for newcomers from warmer climates who are not accustomed to the cold. For people who don’t have meaningful social connections, the cold weather season can exacerbate the isolation they face year-round.

Social isolation is a serious problem for many. It can lead to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and even suicidal thoughts. Social isolation can impact our health in other ways too—by escalating unhealthy habits, stress, lack of sleep—and putting us at higher risk for coronary heart disease and stroke.

Fortunately, there are many creative ways in which communities across the United States are tackling social isolation and building a sense of community.

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Four Ways to Build Inclusive, Healthy Places for All

Jul 25, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by Sharon Roerty

Inclusive public spaces for all are a central part of healthy, resilient communities. A new framework can help ensure that processes for shaping these spaces lead to design decisions that promote equity.

Healthy Places Swing Set

It has been said that inspiration comes when you least expect it. My visit to Melbourne, Australia, inspired me to take an international look at place-making. I was standing in Federation Square, restlessly waiting for my daughter to finish her shift. I hadn’t seen her in nearly a year. I was wearing my mom hat, not my urban planner’s hat.

Nevertheless, as my eyes swept the Square, I had the sense of being in a very special place. And while I didn’t know it at the time, I was not surprised to later learn that Federation Square in the heart of Melbourne has been recognized as one of the best public squares in the world. Fed Square, built on top of a working railway, comprises sculpted and natural elements; it has small spaces like fire pits; and large and medium-size open spaces for planned and unplanned activity. There is a large TV screen that broadcasts international and national sporting events (it is not always on). The Square is open 24 hours a day; has free Wi-Fi for all; rest rooms; and no signs prohibiting activity or lingering. Restaurants open their doors to it; and transit lines and shops surround it.

I visited Fed Square daily for eight days, and what impressed me was how well it reflected Melbourne’s rich cultural diversity; how seamlessly it connected to the streets, buildings and facilities on its periphery; and how welcoming it always felt. It is a place for people—the well-heeled, the not-so lucky—and everyone in between. I should note, though, that Federation Square’s value as an open public space and cultural hub is currently being tested. Controversial changes to it are pushing forward sans public review and participation.

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A Successful Model That Predicts and Prevents Violence

Jun 18, 2018, 11:00 AM, Posted by George Hobor, Laura Leviton

A surgeon in Cardiff, Wales, who regularly treated victims of violence, discovered that many cases went unreported. He devised a model for collecting data and collaborating with both law enforcement and community to predict and prevent violence. This approach is now taking root here in the United States.

Cardiff image

Weekend after weekend, the wave of emergency department (ED) patients would arrive. Oral and maxillofacial surgeon Jonathan Shepard would treat shattered jaws, knife wounds and other facial injuries at the hospital in Cardiff, Wales. These injuries stemmed from brawls in bars and nightclubs where broken glasses and bottles were wielded as weapons. Strangely, Dr. Shepard found that only 23 percent of these assaults treated in the hospital were reported to law enforcement.

Harnessing the Power of Data for Violence Prevention

Determined to find a way to stem the violence, Dr. Shepard mobilized health care providers, law enforcement heads, city officials and other local leaders in working together to address what was happening within their community.

Local hospitals agreed to gather basic anonymized information from each assault victim admitted to the emergency department, including the specific location of the violent incident, time of day, and weapon involved. They removed patient identifiers and shared the anonymous data with local law enforcement officials, who combined those data with their own records.

With these data, police were able to map when and where violence might happen, and concentrate resources on hotspot locations such as specific streets, businesses, schools, or transit stations, and during particular times of the week, to help prevent incidents.

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Can a Trash Can Reveal a Community’s Values?

Sep 21, 2017, 12:00 PM, Posted by Karabi Acharya

What can the U.S. learn from Copenhagen about use of 'placemaking' to foster healthier, more inclusive communities?

Bike-friendly Copenhagen street.

One of the most striking cultural symbols upon arriving in Copenhagen is the sheer number of cyclists navigating city streets—in fact bicycles outnumber cars!

But during my recent visit, it was the trash cans that actually caught my eye.

Just as in many U.S. cities, Copenhagen’s citizens can return used bottles and cans for cash. But, unlike other cities, Copenhagen’s trash cans are equipped with small “deposit” shelves on the outside to place recyclables. This provides an easier, safer, and more sanitary way of collecting discarded cans. Instead of digging through trash cans overflowing with smelly garbage and sharp glass, collectors can easily retrieve bottles and cans from these exterior shelves.

A small feature like this speaks volumes about how our public spaces can support social values like dignity and compassion.

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How Lessons From Abroad Are Uplifting Youth in the United States

Aug 23, 2017, 12:00 PM, Posted by Jennifer Ng'andu

Creative programs in Latin America are inspiring U.S. communities to pursue similar approaches that connect young adults to education and employment.

International Youth Foundation

Like many high school graduates in Brazil, Caroline was eager to find a job. She desperately needed money to continue her studies and pursue her dream of becoming an engineer. But two years after graduating, she was still unemployed. Caroline eventually managed to improve her job prospects in an unlikely way—through drawing, dance and breath work.

Intent on breaking free from a family history of women who weren’t able to get good jobs or finish high school, Caroline discovered a job training program run by Rede Cidadã (The Citizen Network). The non-profit organization connects youth to jobs and apprenticeships throughout Brazil, where the youth unemployment rate is nearly 25 percent.

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Innovations from Abroad Are Keeping Seniors Socially Connected

Apr 13, 2017, 10:00 AM, Posted by Susan Mende

From a dementia village to the next AirBnB for seniors, global entrepreneurs are searching for ways to improve the lives of a rapidly aging population. Their lessons can inform efforts right here in the United States where the elderly population is expected to more than double by 2060.

At a nursing home, a nurses' aide sits with a senior who is drinking a glass of water.

Through the plate glass window of the café where I sipped my coffee, I watched an older gentleman bend to pick something off the ground. He did this repeatedly: down and up, down and up. I learned that he did this every day for hours, picking up fallen leaves.

The man had dementia and lived in Hogewey, a community outside Amsterdam where older people with advanced dementia lead largely autonomous lives in familiar, welcoming surroundings. This particular gentleman liked to pick up leaves—and why not? It did him no harm; in fact, it gave him a little exercise, and he probably found the activity relaxing.

Hogewey is unique—a gated, village-like community where those with dementia live in small-group homes that look and feel like real homes, with people of similar backgrounds and experiences. Caregiving and other staff support them in everyday activities and blend into the environment, serving as grocery store clerks, hairdressers, bartenders, and neighbors.

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Patient and Citizen Engagement for Health: Lessons from Jönköping County, Sweden

Aug 20, 2015, 12:00 PM, Posted by Galina Gheihman, Laura Leviton

What can a small Swedish county teach us about building a Culture of Health in the United States? We visited Sweden and brought back some valuable lessons on patient and citizen engagement.

Copyright Guillaume Baviere

Imagine a society where everyone has the means and opportunity to make choices that lead to the healthiest lives possible––a society where health is valued by all, and no one is excluded because of chronic illness or other limitations. This is what we call a Culture of Health, and it’s what, in collaboration with others, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is working to build in the United States.

We know that to achieve this ambitious vision, we must look to––and learn from––promising approaches across industries, disciplines and geographic borders. This is why we recently visited Jönköping, a small county in south-central Sweden, where patient and citizen engagement has brought about remarkable results: kidney failure patients operate dialysis machines on their own schedule, complex patients—such as people with schizophrenia—actively participate in designing their own care and children’s preferences and experiences are listened to, so services can improve from the children’s point of view.

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Q&A with Pau Gasol: The NBA All-Star's Health Advocacy Off-the-Court

Apr 20, 2015, 9:29 AM, Posted by Merlin Chowkwanyun

It may be NBA playoffs season, but the Gasol brothers are committed to promoting child health year round. RWJF Health & Society Scholar Merlin Chowkwanyun recently sat down with the Chicago Bulls' center to learn about his passion for health advocacy and how he's working to build a Culture of Health in the U.S. and abroad.

Image credit: Joe Murphy (NBAE/Getty)

Since moving to the Chicago Bulls last summer, NBA star Pau Gasol has been having one of the most sensational seasons of his basketball career. A two-time champion with the Los Angeles Lakers, the new Bulls starting center is entering the playoffs as the league leader in double doubles, averaging about 18 points and 12 rebounds per game. In February, he and his younger brother Marc Gasol (of the Memphis Grizzlies) made NBA history as the first siblings to start in the annual All-Star Game: Pau for the East team, Marc for the West.

The two have been equally active off the court. In 2013, after years of work with various philanthropic associations, Pau and Marc formed the Gasol Foundation. It focuses on child health and works towards "a world where all children will enter adulthood physically and mentally equipped to live successful, healthy and productive lives." The Foundation recently launched outreach projects in two areas with severe socioeconomic disadvantage. Vida! Health & Wellness in Boyle Heights (Los Angeles) provides parents and children with instruction in physical activity, physiology, and fitness; healthy cooking and eating; and psychological wellness. L'Esport Suma in South Badalona (Catalonia, Spain) uses sports to promote human development and social cohesion among participants. It is run in conjunction with Casal dels Infants, a long-standing NGO in the region.

Pau has always been a very visible 7-foot presence—literally and figuratively—in Memphis, Los Angeles, and now Chicago, the three cities where he has played. Among other things, that included visiting patients and working with the Children's Hospital Los Angeles and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and around the world, raising awareness of refugees' plight as a UNICEF ambassador. In 2012, the NBA recognized these and many other efforts with its J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, given to only one player a season. He recently was named one of ten finalists for the NBA's Community Assist Award, and fans can vote for him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram by typing #NBACommunityAssist and #PauGasol. 

Each year, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's site complete a "'knowledge exchange" project designed to foster communication among the general public, academic researchers, and population health practitioners. As someone who grew up in Los Angeles, I cheered for Pau during his seven seasons with the Lakers but admired him just as much for what he did beyond the game. For my project this year, I wanted to interview Pau about his and Marc's plans because it seemed the Gasol Foundation's goals dovetailed with those of RWJF's Culture of Health initiative in many respects.

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Field Notes: What Cuba Can Teach Us about Building a Culture of Health

Jan 29, 2015, 9:54 AM, Posted by Maryjoan Ladden, Susan Mende

Ever since President Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, there’s been growing excitement over the potential for new opportunities for tourism, as well as technology and business exchanges. Most people assume that the flow will be one-sided, with the United States providing expertise and investment to help Cuba’s struggling economy and decaying infrastructure.

That assumption would be wrong. America can—and already has—learned a lot from Cuba. At RWJF, we support MEDICC, an organization that strives to use lessons gleaned from Cuba’s health care system to improve outcomes in four medically underserved communities in the United States—South Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; Albuquerque, N.M.; and the Bronx, N.Y. Even with very limited resources, Cuba has universal medical and dental care and provides preventive strategies and primary care at the neighborhood level, resulting in enviable health outcomes. Cuba has a low infant mortality rate and the lowest HIV rate in the Americas, for example—with a fraction of the budget spent in the United States.

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Nurses are Awesome, Say it Loud and Proud!

Jul 15, 2013, 10:00 AM, Posted by Timothy Landers

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*Gennit is not her real name but the story is true.  Her mom gave us permission (from the row behind us) to use this story and photo.  Hopefully, this counts as her “What I did over summer vacation” essay when school starts.

I’m sitting on the plane with Gennit, a 13-year old girl who was born in Ethiopia, but now lives in Atlanta with her brother and parents.  Gennit is a nice and articulate 13-year girl, and we chatted during the 13-hour flight about our experiences in Ethiopia.

She had a lot of things to say, and I noticed that she was somewhat soft-spoken making it difficult to hear her at times.  I asked her about my observation that many Ethiopian girls and women speak softly and what she thought about that.

Gennit told me she thought is was more “ladylike” to speak softly and, in Ethiopia, children are taught that it is wrong for a girl to talk loudly.

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