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Massachusetts Age-Friendly Non-Profit Combats Isolation in Times of Physical Distancing

Written by Chloe-Rose Crouch, AARP Massachusetts Outreach Intern

The AARP Massachusetts Livable Communities Initiative encourages age-friendly growth in eight ‘Domains of Livability’-- housing, transportation, social participation, access to information, outdoor spaces, health services, inclusion, and civic participation—so communities become great places to live for people of all ages.

What does this initiative look like at a community level? Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly is a national network of volunteer-based organizations whose mission is to end loneliness and social isolation for people over seventy, particularly for elderly individuals living at or below the poverty line.

Since March 2020, The Boston branch of Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly has distributed 100 tablets to seniors in affordable housing communities. Using these tablets, they host virtual, intergenerational activities that connect Boston’s aging population with university students.

The virtual events are part of the organization’s CitySites program, which encourages social participation, one of the eight Domains of Livability, in a way that is safe and accessible in times of physical distancing. The program also works to combat isolation, one of three topics of interest in the Boston-specific Age-Friendly Action Plan.

The program focuses on engaging seniors living in affordable elderly housing, and it recruits volunteers through clubs and organizations at local universities. “These are assets Boston has,” says Cynthia Wilkerson, Program Director, Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly. “We’ve got density of senior housing and density of college-aged students.” Thus, CitySites capitalizes on Boston’s resources in order to engage vulnerable elder adults.

“Intergenerational activities are a place where people can really be seen,” says Wilkerson. “Younger people find older, trusted adults, and older people find creativity and enthusiasm in younger adults. It’s a mutually beneficial connection.”

With the costs of tablets and data covered by Boston’s Age Strong Commission, beneficiaries can join language classes, Zoom and Google Suite trainings, poetry workshops, and story-telling seminars free of charge. Weekly Bingo on Monday afternoons is especially popular, according to Wilkerson.  

Engaging so many individuals virtually wasn’t easy at first. “For some of the folks who received tablets, it’s the first time they’ve been online,” says Wilkerson. There were also logistical issues with delivering tablets due to physical distancing measures.

However, the organization’s ability to adapt to the challenging situation greatly benefited those involved in the program.  “Everyone is feeling the impact of isolation,” says Alex, a volunteer with Little Brothers, “so getting to talk to people and build connections is a rewarding part of this experience.”

Whether online or in-person, Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly will keep creating spaces for intergenerational communication, where people of all ages can come together and help make Boston a livable community for people of all ages.

“Intergenerational activities can be transformational,” says Wilkerson, “they give everyone a chance to bring their unique assets to the be heard, and to be their true selves. We strive to cultivate spaces for those real, genuine connections to happen.”

To learn more about AARP’s Livable Communities Initiative, click here.

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