Help Us Find Solutions for Social Isolation

Oct 19, 2017, 2:00 PM, Posted by

We’re providing a total of $2.5 million in funding, looking for the best ideas from around the world that can address social isolation in the United States.

A teenage boy looks out of a window.

I remember reading the story of a dying patient who, when asked who to call as his life was ending, he replied, “no one.” He had absolutely no immediate family or close friends. Dr. Druv Khullar who wrote the piece noted "the sadness of his death was surpassed only by the sadness of his solitude. I wondered whether his isolation was a driving force of his premature death, not just an unhappy circumstance."

This profoundly sad story struck me to my core.

Not everyone has a social network to call on when they need people by their side. Many people feel disconnected from society and from life, and that contributes to a host of physical, mental and emotional health problems. In fact, according to experts, social isolation is as bad for your health as smoking, obesity, elevated blood pressure, and high cholesterol.

Cultivating Social Connections Can Help Us Thrive

Social isolation is a state in which a person lacks a sense of belonging, isn’t engaging with others, and has a minimal number of social contacts and quality relationships.

We tend to think of social isolation as a common side effect of growing old. But social isolation can begin early in life, develop over time, or result from a major life event. School children, teens, new moms, LGBT people, immigrants, people living in remote, rural areas, even millennials with thousands of Facebook friends, often feel excluded or like they don’t belong.

Social connections help give our lives purpose and meaning. When we have family, friends, and coworkers to celebrate and commiserate with, and when we feel part of our communities, we live longer, healthier lives. Recent research shows that greater social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of dying early.

We’re making great progress at tackling social isolation in the older generation, but we need to more explicitly and proactively promote meaningful social relationships and increase social connectedness across all stages and ages of life.

Learning From the World

Ours is not the only country that is facing this problem. We've been learning promising practices from throughout the world: countries, cities, and neighborhoods are putting in place policies and programs to address social isolation and build positive social connections.

Some of the best ideas are making their way to the States:

  • Welcome Dinners: Marina Aleixo immigrated from Brazil and had been living in the United States for more than 20 years before being invited into the home of an American to celebrate Thanksgiving. She’s joined a movement that originated in Sweden and has spread quickly throughout Europe and now the States to host “Welcome Dinners” for refugees, immigrants and others that are new to the community. It’s a simple concept: bring people together, no matter what their background, to share a meal and connect.

  • Men’s Sheds: Men tend to let their friendships lapse as they grow older and start families. They rely more on the workplace for social contact, but lose those connections when they retire. For their relationships and social connections to survive, research has found that men need to meet up regularly and find mutual activities to bond over. That’s where Men’s Sheds comes in—they provide men with a place to gather and make furniture, fix lawn mowers, take on community projects like building playgrounds, or just chat over a cup of coffee. It gives men a space where they can find meaning, friendship and a sense of belonging. Men’s Sheds started in Australia and sheds are now opening in Hawaii, Philadelphia, Michigan and other U.S. communities.

We’re Searching for Solutions Around the World

We think there is much more the U.S. can learn from beyond our nation’s borders about preventing social isolation—both from countries where residents are happy and have thriving social connections, and countries that are still working to find solutions.

On October 30, we announced a call for proposals looking for the best ideas from around the world that address social isolation and promote positive, healthy connections, such as:

  • Pilot or demonstration trials in the U.S. of interventions to address social isolation developed outside the United States.

  • Learning exchanges between U.S.-based and global investigators and/or communities to explore approaches to social isolation that may be implemented in the future.

  • Evaluation of promising approaches to social isolation developed abroad to learn how it might be adapted and implemented in the United States.

A total of $2.5 million will be available for projects that are up to three years in duration. We want to hear from both U.S.-based organizations who want to adapt an overseas idea, and from international institutions with ideas that could be brought to the United States.

This call for proposals in now closed.

To learn more about what we are learning from the world, visit our Reimagined in America archived webinar series.


About the author

Maryjoan Ladden / RWJF

Maryjoan D. Ladden, PhD, RN, FAAN, is a senior program officer at Robert Wood Johnson Foundation working on leadership for better health and global ideas for U.S. solutions.