Dec 12, 2022

To help us understand the connection between mental health and social isolation - and about ways to promote connection - we interviewed Kasley Killam and Sandra Harris of the MA Taskforce to End Loneliness and Build Community.

The connection between social connectedness and positive mental health—regardless of age—is well established. People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Studies show that these individuals have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, and are more trusting and cooperative.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most people experienced a degree of loneliness. To help us understand the connection between mental health and social isolation, and the ways to promote connection, MAMH interviewed Kasley Killam, Executive Director of Social Health Labs and Public Awareness Lead for the MA Taskforce to End Loneliness and Build Community (the Taskforce), as well as Sandra Harris, State President of AARP MA and Co-Chair of the Taskforce.

Worried older adults man sitting alone in his home stock photo

What is the connection between loneliness and mental health?

Kasley Killa: Lacking close, supportive relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers takes a toll on mental health, including an increased likelihood of depression, cognitive decline, and suicidal ideation. Beyond the mental health effects, connection is also linked to outcomes like better cardiovascular health, immune resilience, and longevity. That’s why strengthening social health—the dimension of well-being that stems from relationships—can also help improve physical and mental health.

How are people and organizations tackling social isolation in their communities?

KK: In Massachusetts, Taskforce members connect residents in a variety of inspiring ways, such as running friendly visitor programs, where volunteers spend time with isolated older adults; improving access to transportation, so that people can be active in the community; providing technology training to help people stay connected with family members; and building chat benches and other physical spaces to gather. More broadly, there is a wave of innovation and momentum to promote human connection across the country and around the world in different sectors, including healthcare, technology, schools, workplaces, and more, which has largely been catalyzed by the pandemic.

“It’s the little things that can make a big difference in the way that we feel connected to one another.”
Caitlin Coyle, Co-Chair of the Taskforce
Group of individuals of various ages and ethnicities in Cafe

How did the Taskforce get started?

Sandra Harris: Our work began in spring 2019 when we noticed the impact of the loneliness epidemic throughout the Commonwealth. There were more than 540,000 adults aged 50+ in Massachusetts who were living alone and at risk for loneliness, and we heard from community stakeholders who were seeing the effects of this crisis and seeking solutions. Because the problem of social isolation and loneliness is so multidimensional, we worked together with organizations that had a history of doing work in this space, combining our resources and ingenuity for greater impact.

Who is involved in the Taskforce?

SH: Since the Taskforce first began in 2019, it has grown to more than 80 members and over 45 organizations spanning government, nonprofits, academic institutions, advocacy groups, startups, and more.

How does the Taskforce promote social connections? What are some of the Taskforce's activities?

SH: Each month we convene our members to share insights and support each other. We engage in advocacy and empower the public through our annual summit, a monthly TV show, reports and blog, #ReachOutMA campaign, and our Valued Voices group of older residents. We also advance focus areas that community members have identified as priorities, including intergenerational connection and digital equity.

How can I get involved?

SH: The Taskforce is at an exciting turning point, looking ahead to how to build on our foundation to have more impact. We welcome everyone’s ideas, experiences, and skills.

Learn more and get involved with Social Health Labs and the MA Taskforce to End Loneliness and Build Community.

Interested in seeing Taskforce members a work? Examples of current initiatives include:

  • FriendshipWorks for Elders matches volunteers with older adults 60+ (or 55+ with vision or hearing loss) to provide practical assistance and build friendships. One-on-one programs offered in Boston, Brookline and some neighboring communities include Friendly Visitors, Medical Escorts, and Friendly Helpers. Petpals and MusicWorks offers group-based activities and visiting in select elder buildings, assisted living centers, or nursing homes in Boston. FriendshipWorks LGBTQ+ initiative offers thoughtful friendly visitor matches and intentional, LGBTQ+ focused programming to build connections and celebrate LGBTQ+ older adults. Learn more or apply to volunteer for FriendshipWorks here.
“Visiting has given me so much - friendship, learning new things, laughter together during a difficult time... I can put aside all my stress and be present with my friend.”
FriendshipWorks volunteer working with older adults
  • Little Brothers—Friends of the Elderly’s (LBFE) intergenerational program model utilizes Boston’s community resources of a growing and diverse community of older adults and the large number of colleges and universities in the city. The two primary programs, CitySites and Digital Dividends, offer on-site intergenerational social and educational opportunities within senior housing. Creative Connections brings instructor-led arts training and classes into senior centers and senior housing. LBFE Boston's suite of linguistically and culturally informed programs helps Boston’s low-income older adults “age in community” rather than age in isolation. Learn more or apply to volunteer for LBFE here.

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