Seniors in group living situations are less lonely and more optimistic

Seniors in group living centers are feeling less lonely now and more optimistic

By Jacquelyn Kung, Robert G. Kramer and Ed Frauenheim

Contrary to popular opinion, recent studies show that older adults are not languishing in lonely isolation. “In fact, a large percentage of seniors in our communities are not lonely,” said Robert Kramer, Founder and Fellow of Nexus Insights and Strategic Advisor for NIC. “The common perceptions —  they’re wrong, ageist and miss the hopefulness of seniors in their finding a sense of community, even in the midst of the pandemic.”

In the past, we have seen people come together during national emergencies “to form communities around a common threat and a common need,” Kramer explained. “The one group we don’t expect it from at all are older adults in senior living communities —  but they are, and they are demonstrating it,” Kramer said.

Authors Jacquelyn Kung, Robert Kramer and Ed Frauenheim point to our elders as role models for healing the nation, and showing us how to live more fully than ever, in their recent column in the Dallas Morning News.


Our poor elders.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, and media coverage of seniors, you might think basically all seniors today are traumatized and lonely, right?

Wrong.

The stereotype of isolated, forlorn elders belies recent surveys of older adults in senior living settings.

Just 20% of senior living residents are severely lonely, according to a new 64,000-person survey from software firm Activated Insights. In fact, this survey of seniors in assisted living and other congregate living settings reveals a potential decline in loneliness among elders in retirement communities from before the pandemic. Prior studies before the pandemic of community-dwelling older adults found higher rates of loneliness.

We would argue that we as a country have a biased — and potentially ageist — narrative when it comes to elders living in congregate settings.

In fact, we should learn from the resilience of elders in the face of formidable challenges.

The stereotype of isolated, forlorn elders belies recent surveys of older adults in senior living settings.

Granted, the recent Activated Insights survey does not include most nursing homes, where particularly frail elders live. And the number of older adults in senior living settings overall, roughly 2 million people, is a fraction of the total U.S. senior population.

Still, the new research offers inspiration to the rest of the county as we work to construct our post-COVID reality and battle what some have deemed widespread languishing.

A key lesson from our elders in this moment is the power of community, friendship and gratitude.

Consider Patricia Finick of Dallas, co-author Jacquelyn Kung’s mother-in-law. By any measure, the 81-year-old has been through a lot. Her husband of more than 50 years died in 2019. After sitting in an empty home for half a year, she chose to sell her house in Connecticut, 20 minutes from where she was born, and relocate to Dallas.

In January 2020, she moved into Highland Springs, a senior living community in North Dallas. Finick swapped a 2,200-square-foot home for a 900-square-foot apartment. And then COVID-19 swooped in, isolating her in her new home before she had a chance to meet new friends.

Despite a very difficult year, Finick doesn’t feel beaten down in this moment. No, life is looking more hopeful to her. And she’s excited about engaging in more activities. “As long as my legs will let me, I’m going to go out and do it,” she says. “And if my legs don’t work well, I can get a walker.”

A key lesson from our elders in this moment is the power of community, friendship and gratitude.

One key to her optimism is her Catholic faith. Another is her set of friends, both long-standing phone buddies as well as some new friends she has met at Highland Springs over the past year. She’s part of a breakfast club, a group of residents who gather most mornings. “They’re really, really friendly, and we have a lot of laughs together,” Finick says.

Finick’s contentment is echoed by other residents of senior living settings, according to the Activated Insights survey of residents and family members during the first half of this year.

Many elders in these settings expressed gratitude, both for the sense of belonging they experience and for the caring they received from staff members of their communities.

Consider these survey comments from seniors:

“I’m more than satisfied with life. I feel safe and am especially grateful for the careful response to COVID-19. Gratitude and blessings.”

“(I had) a feeling of safety during a time of great vulnerability. Having the opportunity to make new friends helps a lot.”

These aren’t cherry-picked quotes. Before COVID, when asked for comments about the best thing about the senior living community, 20% or fewer responses were about belonging, community, appreciating the staff and being safe. This year, though, 60% to 70% of “best thing” comments mentioned those themes.

As a nation, America could use a booster shot of resilience. Observers note a kind of COVID hangover, or apathy.

Seniors in congregate settings, who in some ways bore the brunt of the pandemic, offer guidance for a brighter path forward. These older adults may be more willing than younger Americans to acknowledge our interdependence as human beings, experiencing the support they receive not with resentment but appreciation.

Far from feeling fearful, sad and isolated, seniors are showing us how to live more fully than ever.

A few months ago in The News, we authors urged the country to rethink how we view senior citizens and engage elders in the work of healing the nation.

The latest data suggests seniors are already doing this work. Far from feeling fearful, sad and isolated, many of them are showing us how to live more fully than ever.

Patricia Finick, for one, looks forward to more dinners and concerts with her new friends. Together, they are eager to put the last vestiges of the pandemic behind them.

Says Finick: “There is a whole world out there to explore.”

Read the article.

Jacquelyn Kung is CEO of Activated Insights and a Nexus Insights Fellow.

Robert G. Kramer is a Nexus Insights Founder and Fellow, and Strategic Advisor & former CEO of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care (NIC).

Ed Frauenheim is co-author of several books on organizational culture, including “A Great Place to Work for All.”

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