Aug. 30 2021

"Age Boom" Journalist Bootcamp Focuses on Solutions to Older Adult Loneliness

Since it launched in 2000, the Robert N. Butler-Jack Rosenthal Age Boom Academy has trained over 200 journalists about the complex health, social, and economic issues facing our aging population. The Age Boom Academy, whose name is inspired by the growing numbers of older adults globally, is a signature program of the Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, in partnership with the Columbia Journalism School​.

This summer, nearly 40 journalists from across the country joined in the four-day online program of lectures, panel discussions, and story clinics on the epidemic of loneliness among older adults and strategies to combat it. Participating journalists, known as Age Boom fellows, heard from researchers, clinicians, policy, healthcare and insurance leaders, and seasoned reporters. Major support for the program was provided by the RRF Foundation for Aging with additional funding from the AARP Foundation. The full 2021 Age Boom program entitled “Combating Loneliness in Aging: Toward a 21st Century Blueprint for Societal Connectedness” is available to watch online.

In opening remarks, Dean Linda P. Fried, a renowned gerontologist who directs the Columbia Aging Center, defined loneliness as “a subjective painful feeling of being isolated and not having our needs for connection met—something we are biologically wired to experience.” She continued: “It is akin to what happens when we feel hunger, which tells us we need food. Similarly, loneliness is painful and tells us we need more connection. This pro-social drive has always been essential to people’s survival and communities thriving.”

Research shows that rates of older adult loneliness in the United States more than doubled between 1970 and 2010. Social isolation and ageism evident during the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the problem. According to Fried, the epidemic of loneliness may contribute to a parallel rise in so-called diseases of despair, behavior-related health conditions that stem from a sense of declining social and economic prospects, and could also factor in the spread of online extremism.

Even though loneliness is known to stem from a lack of social connections and meaning, it is still often misunderstood as a problem to be addressed one individual at a time. In fact, loneliness is a collective problem and demands collective solutions. To address loneliness at scale, Dean Fried argued that society must promote connections between older people by building social infrastructure in our environments and institutions, as well as job and volunteer opportunities that bring people together, including intergenerational connections between younger and older age groups. “The ability of older and younger adults to contribute to society is a strong counter to loneliness and contributes to mental and physical health while strengthening society,” she said.

Charles Branas, chair of the Columbia Mailman Department of Epidemiology, spoke about how changes to the physical environment can make a big difference for community health and well-being. Examples include new light rail stops in Charlotte which were shown to reduce levels of excess weight by encouraging physical activity; and fixing abandoned houses in New Orleans and greening vacant lots in Philadelphia, both of which led to reductions in violence.

According to Branas, other opportunities can be found to encourage older adults to get out of their homes and engage with their communities. In New York City, aging-friendly urban designers have added benches and longer crosswalk times. While the bulk of the national health dollar goes toward developing medical treatments, a better return on investment is possible by developing new “treatments” for places and spaces. “The places that surround us every day, all the time are vital to our health and well-being,” he said.

While Age Boom fellows spent most of their time during the training learning from experts, they also got to meet a dozen older adult members of the Bloomingdale Aging in Place community to hear about their personal experiences of how they overcome loneliness and thrive under the umbrella of this novel community model to keep older neighbors connected. This all-volunteer, intergenerational network of neighbors builds community by organizing hundreds of social and physical activities each year. Neighbors also share information and extend a helping hand to one another as they age at home in their Upper West Side community.

Reflecting on her Age Boom experience, Lauren J. Mapp, a reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune, said she enjoyed the chance to participate and found it valuable to her reporting. “Between hearing from expert researchers and connecting with other reporters and editors, it has been an amazing experience which I would recommend to any reporter—especially someone like me on a regional aging beat where I deepened my understanding of the interplay of issues around health, economics, and aging,” she said.