Improving seniors health through community connection

Pilot program in Palo Alto, Cal., discourages helplessness

Pauline Thomas, 76, was stressed to the point of tears. The retired floral designer had just gotten a new pacemaker; her husband was fighting cancer; she needed a knee operation; and she was struggling to live on Social Security in Palo Alto, Calif., where the cost of living has skyrocketed.

“People would look at me and say, ‘How’s your husband doing?’ and I’d become a big crybaby.”

But instead of prescribing medication to alleviate her anxiety, her doctor directed her to a program that is seeking to improve people’s health by connecting them with community. LinkAges, a pilot program launched three years ago by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, is an intergenerational network of people helping each other. It works as a time-bank system: if you spend an hour helping someone, you get an hour of help.

Seniors are often on the receiving end of care. But the new program’s reciprocity, which discourages a sense of obligation or helplessness, further encourages seniors to take advantage. And those who do may reap the rewards of better health.

That’s because social isolation and loneliness have increasingly been recognized as detrimental to health, leading to higher incidences of depression, dementia, and loss of daily living skills.

The idea of linkAges arose after a medical ethnographer spent a year at PAMF talking to seniors and family caregivers. The program took shape “at a key time when studies were coming out linking loneliness as a very key indicator of potential outcomes,” said Vandana Pant, its senior director of strategic initiatives. “How can a health system take a different approach and look at the prevention end of care rather than the traditional investments” associated with treatment?

The types of services range widely, from helping with household tasks and driving to playing board games or doing Tai chi to teaching someone how to make a corsage. Forty-two per cent of members are people 60 and over, and 19 per cent are family caregivers. Many are on fixed incomes. More than 1,000 people in 10 nearby cities have joined the program, and more than 3,800 hours have been exchanged.

Pant said her 86-year-old mother, an immigrant from India who lives with her, loves being able to both give and receive through the program.

“Her biggest issue in this country is a lack of vibrant community,” Pant said. “She loves to play Scrabble, and somebody comes over and plays Scrabble with her for an hour (and) this Scrabble thing becomes an excuse to make connections and have other conversations outside the family.”

At first her mother was worried about feeling obligated, she said. But then she found a way to contribute – by knitting a scarf for a family with a two-year-old son and presenting it to them.

“The fascinating thing for me was to see how much that lightened my mother’s spirit – the 15 days or so of preparation and the 10 days of the afterglow,” Pant said.

Formal results for the three-year pilot will be published in November, but members are reporting a sense of increased community connection, and Pant said she is talking with health systems in other states that are interested in replicating the program.

For Thomas, the benefits are clear. She has used the service to get rides and to connect with others who like to walk. And she has offered to build floral centerpieces and teach the art of corsage-making.

“It’s so nice to talk about what’s happening with you, knowing that someone’s there if you need something,” she said. “It releases a world of stress knowing that someone else cares.”

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