woman with dementia sitting in chair
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A Massachusetts task force to end loneliness and build community originated before COVID-19, but the pandemic raised awareness around isolation and shaped the experiences of the statewide coalition.

That’s according to Caitlin E. Coyle, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Center for Social & Demographic Research in Aging at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Speaking during a Monday LeadingAge membership call, she discussed how the pandemic offered a shared experience in social isolation and loneliness that helped many understand how some older adults live their normal lives.

The Massachusetts Task Force to End Loneliness and Build Community was created to try to turn back the rising tide of separation. The coalition works to mobilize local organizations, thought leaders and other partners to use their collective resources to help older adults feel connected to their communities. 

“COVID brought to light the whole conversation of social isolation,” said Coyle, who joined forces with AARP Massachusetts President Sandra Harris to establish the task force in 2019. 

The group is made up of members of state and city governments, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, advocacy groups, startups and other partners. Goddard House and Providence House Assisted Living are among its members.

In 2020, the task force led virtual conversations with more than 300 community members to gather insights, publish a report with best practices and recommendations, host a statewide summit, and launch a multimedia awareness campaign.

“It’s the Little Things: A Community Resource for Strengthening Social Connections” offered local examples of innovative ways communities had stepped up to provide meaningful connection for older adults during the pandemic.

“Little things can have a big impact,” Coyle said. “It’s really about trying to make people feel seen and heard as individuals and an opportunity to feel connected to something larger than themselves.”

The #ReachOutMA campaign provided resources about how organizations and communities improved social connectivity and addressed loneliness and isolation. 

“We were seeing the opportunity the pandemic provided. People were more familiar with how it felt to be isolated and lonely,” Coyle said. “For some folks, that’s how they’re living — and will continue to live.” 

Coyle said the goal of the campaign was to simultaneously erode the stigma of social isolation and loneliness and tap into the lived experience of the pandemic. The campaign, she said, included social media campaigns, public television public service announcements and letters to the editor to advance the conversation. 

In 2021, the task force focused its initiatives on addressing the digital divide, promoting intergenerational connections and engaging more community members. 

“One thing we heard and know — there is a lot of stigma around the topics of isolation and loneliness,” Coyle said, adding that her goal is to change thinking about social health in the same way people think about physical or mental health. “It’s OK to think about social health and assess where it is — the same way you assess mental or physical health — and improve that version of your health,” she said.