Bringing Together Young And Old To Ease The Isolation Of Rural Life

Priscilla Bogema lives in a rural town called McGregor, Minn., in a part of the state that has more trees and lakes than people.  She came here about 20 years ago seeking solitude during a major crisis in her life. She had just gotten divorced and was dealing with some health problems. “So I came to a place where nobody could see me,” she says.

Now, Bogema is in her 60s, frail and mostly confined to her house. Her arthritis and other health problems have limited her mobility. She struggles with the upkeep of her home and yard. She drives into town once a week for groceries and a movie with other seniors. But she doesn’t have close friends she sees regularly and her children and grandchildren only visit once every few months.

The solitude she once sought is no longer as comforting. “It can get lonely, very lonely,” she says.

According to a recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Bogema is one of about 2.5 million rural residents (about 7% of the total rural population) who say they have no friends or family nearby to rely on. An additional 14 million (about 39%) say they only have a few people. Like Bogema, many feel isolated.

McGregor, Minn., is one of 18 communities in north-eastern part of the state that is participating in a program that addresses loneliness and social isolation by connecting the young with the old.

Meredith Rizzo/NPR

People in rural areas report “feeling lonely or left out,” says Carrie Henning-Smith, the deputy director of the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center and one of the authors of a recent study on rural isolation, despite the fact that rural communities often have stronger social networks than urban ones. She notes that many communities have become more socially isolated in recent years as rural economies have declined and young people moved away.

Social isolation is increasingly recognized as a public health issue. Studies show that isolation and loneliness puts people at a higher risk of long term physical and mental health problems, including premature mortality. And Henning-Smith’s preliminary research suggests that in rural areas, isolation can reduce people’s ability to meet daily needs, like access to health care and food.

A group in northeastern Minnesota is tackling this problem in a novel way: They’re trying to reconnect a fragmented social fabric by bringing together generations to support each other — kids and the elderly.

McGregor is one of 18 rural communities running the program, called AGE to age. It connects more than 4,000 youth with almost 2,500 older adults annually.

The initiative is not just geared to help the elderly — the support runs both ways. It also helps children and young people in these communities feel more supported, giving them work experience and mentors. Children and seniors work on projects together — the kind of activity varies from community to community, and can range anywhere from participating in a reading club, to building and maintaining a community garden, to helping local food pantries, to working on art projects. Along the way, they develop meaningful relationships that can last beyond the program.

The full article can be accessed here.