All the Lonely People: Social Isolation Is Killing Us. Some Funders Are Paying Attention

 photo:  Nikodash/shutterstock

photo:  Nikodash/shutterstock

Social isolation isn’t a topic that gets a lot of attention from funders, but the data around its effects on people is striking. One study found loneliness was on par with smoking, high blood pressure, obesity and other well-accepted risks as a predictor of early death.

Other research points to loneliness being on the rise. A study by the AARP estimated 42.6 million adults over 45 in the U.S. suffer from chronic loneliness. Comprising more than a quarter of the U.S. population, more than half are unmarried, and marriage rates and the number of children have decreased, according to data from the most recent census.

When you consider that social isolation is a predictor of early death, similar to smoking, high blood pressure and obesity, those numbers are concerning. Despite that, social isolation has not been similarly prioritized by most funders. 

The AARP Foundation is one exception. Predictably, the foundation focuses its work on the elderly, and until recently, had made housing its main priority. Last month, it put out a call out for projects to tackle social isolation of seniors, specifically looking for ideas that could be scaled at the regional and national levels, as we’ve reported.

Related to this, some LGBTQ and community funders are engaged in grantmaking that addresses the social isolation of LGBTQ seniors who are aging without strong support networks that include family and children. 

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Now, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has entered this space, with $2.5 million in funding for work tackling social isolation.

Unlike the AARP Foundation, RWJF is not limiting its focus to social isolation in the elderly. In fact, the foundation points out that the elderly are far from the only population prone to isolation and loneliness.

“We tend to think of social isolation as a common side effect of growing old. But social isolation can begin early in life, develop over time, or result from a major life event,” said Dr. Maryjoan Ladden, a senior program officer at RWJF. “School children, teens, new moms, LGBT people, immigrants, people living in remote, rural areas, even millennials with thousands of Facebook friends, often feel excluded or like they don’t belong.”

In addition to a much wider scope, RWJF’s call for proposals differs from other work on social isolation through its emphasis on drawing from ideas already in use abroad. This should come as no surprise, since this project is part of the foundation’s global learning program, which imports ideas from abroad to work toward a healthier culture at home, as we recently reported. 

Related: Study Abroad: A Top U.S. Health Funder Looks Overseas for New Ideas

So what kinds of efforts to combat social isolation is RWJF seeking? The foundation provided examples of some projects already in the works to give applicants an idea of what they’re looking for. One is Men’s Sheds, which provides a place for men to gather and make furniture, fix lawn mowers, take on community projects like building playgrounds or chat over coffee. Many men rely on the workplace for social connection and can become lonely after retirement. The idea, which hails from Australia, is based on research showing that men who meet up regularly over a mutual activity are more likely to form social connections. Sheds are slated to arrive in Hawaii, Philadelphia and Michigan.

Welcome Dinners are another idea derived from RWJF’s travels. The idea, which originated in Sweden, is for communities to welcome refugees, immigrants and other newcomers by hosting dinners. Marina Aleixo got involved in the movement, drawing on her experience as a Brazilian immigrant to the U.S. She’d lived in the country for more than 20 years before she was invited to the home of an American friend for Thanksgiving dinner.

The foundation is looking for applicants from inside and outside the U.S. to participate. Pilot projects can be up to three years long. Individual grants will likely range from $250,000 to $750,000. Applications are due Dec. 21.

Some other projects piloted through RWJF’s global learning program include enlisting Dartmouth University to adapt a disease registry pioneered in Sweden, replicating Latin American tactics for reintegrating at-risk youth in New Orleans, and partnering with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to adopt a Welsh public safety project that used emergency room data to identify hotspots for violence.

The foundation recently led a study tour in Copenhagen that looked at how the city incorporates the spirit of inclusion into the design of public space. The group observed not only how large public spaces, like parks, are designed, but also how something like a trashcan can be designed in a more thoughtful, compassionate way. The hope is that the group of city planners will push for public policy that supports a more inclusive use of public space at home, said Karabi Acharya, an RWJF director leading the international program.