Using creative expression as a catalyst to connect.
Aging UnLonely is a program developed by The UnLonely Project to address loneliness and social isolation in older adults, conditions which have a well-documented negative impact on physical and psychological health. Launched in 2018, Aging UnLonely fills a gap identified by community-based organizations serving seniors who want to offer effective programs that address loneliness but often lack the specific expertise and tools to implement them. Aging UnLonely fills that gap by providing low cost access to effective, highly engaging, and easy-to-implement programs, supported in part through the AARP Foundation, the charitable arm of AARP.
This initiative was born out of the recognition that the prevalence of loneliness and social isolation is on an upward trajectory in the US, and older adults are particularly susceptible. Loneliness often accompanies the kinds of challenging life circumstances that are more pronounced for older adults, like serving as a caregiver of a spouse or close friend, experiencing the loss of loved ones, being limited by mobility issues, and managing chronic or catastrophic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, mental illness or cancer.
Loneliness has negative effects on mental health, worsening depression, anxiety, mood disorders and cognitive decline, and on physical health, leading to higher rates of cardiovascular impairment, chronic pain, and metabolic disorders. As loneliness is associated with as much as a 30% increase in early mortality, there is an urgency to make programs that increase connection among older adults widely available and accessible.
An Innovative Digital Platform
Leveraging some user-friendly interactive technologies, Aging UnLonely offers a low-cost resource for community-based organizations to deliver effective support group-style programming to address loneliness and social isolation, while also giving them evaluation tools and data management support to assess participant engagement and program outcomes. Aging UnLonely’s digital platform offers a turnkey experience, requiring very little training and delivered in a “software-as-a-service” (SaaS) model. A facilitator from a community-based organization with even modest group facilitation skills can use the digital platform to get everything they need to run a successful program. This includes in-depth facilitator training guides in print and video, detailed curriculum, and surveys to evaluate program participants’ experience with the program. Facilitators upload participant survey responses onto the digital platform and can access standard reports as well as graphically enhanced visualizations of the impact the program has on their participants.
Designed to ultimately deliver a full portfolio of relevant programs, the digital platform currently offers a “Successful Aging” starter-program designed to help older adults (60+) better manage the various challenges of aging in daily life. The platform program library will eventually offer additional curricula that caters to older adults, on themes such as “Managing Chronic Conditions,” “Life Transitions,” “Caregiving” and “Bereavement.” The digital platform creates a model for scalability as a growing number of organizations can simultaneously tap into this platform to improve their capacity to support the social connection needs of the older adult communities they serve.
A Unique Program Model
Aging UnLonely program offerings use the Creativity Circle® model designed by the Foundation for Art & Healing for its in-person programmatic work. Within a Creativity Circle, participants engage in activities and exercises that incorporate a unique blend of mindfulness, creative arts expression and discussion/reflection. In the “Successful Aging” program currently available through the digital platform, older adults use these three modalities to explore themes such as making friends as you get older, finding ways to feel resilient, keeping your brain and body healthy, managing stress, finding purpose and meaning, and taking time for self-care. Mindfulness activities include breathing exercises, guided meditation, and meditative art-making projects, to help participants feel more in the moment as they delve deeply into their thoughts and feelings around aging. Creative arts activities, which range from painting, to viewing and discussing short films, responding to music, drawing, and collage, are used to help participants envision themselves, their thoughts and feelings, and life experiences in a new way. The group discussion portion of the Creativity Circle enables participants to share thoughts, feelings and concerns as well as strategies for managing personal challenges, providing mechanisms for skill-building and the giving and receiving of support.
Testing Aging UnLonely and its Scalability
To better understand the applicability of the program content and ease of use of the digital delivery platform among different older adult populations, we recently launched a pilot program in six sites across the country. The pilot sites were located in three different regions– Chicago, New York City, and Maine– serving a mix of urban and rural areas. Pilot partners rolled out the Successful Aging Creativity Circles in a variety of settings including senior housing and NORCs (Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities), social service agencies, sites connected to major health systems including an outpatient health clinic, and within a municipal center in an Age-Friendly community. Results from these first pilot programs will be available early in 2020. Aging UnLonely will be running additional pilot programs in Spring 2020 to test revised program content and enhancements to the digital program support platform.
Aging UnLonely plans to scale this effort in 2020 and 2021 in collaboration with additional community-based partners within the Maine, Greater Chicago, and New York regions. A model for achieving national distribution is currently in development to reach and support a significant number of older adults (with an emphasis on serving those with low income) in the coming years. This expansion will encompass community-based organizations of various types, from the traditional social service environments to more unconventional settings including libraries, museums, schools and even retail establishments. Our goal is for older adults across the country to learn to manage the challenges of aging as they arise, explore aging-related thoughts and feelings through a variety of creative expression and mindfulness based activities, and feel more connected to themselves and to others. As the Aging UnLonely program is evidence based and data driven, we will be developing a growing repository of anonymized data that will provide insights into the needs and circumstances that isolated and lonely seniors face as and the efficacy of various strategies to address them.
For more information about the Aging UnLonely programs, please connect [email protected].
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Here’s what participants are saying…
We’re all on an individual journey, but somehow we all have so much more in common than we ever realized. That realization came to me through this creative process.
It was an awareness of how much I enjoyed expression through art and how I was able to start conversations because of it.
This creative process is translating my feelings into something I can now process.