PLAINVIEW, N.Y. — Nora Leeds had lived alone for many years in her Long Island home, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that she started to feel isolated.
She was used to working in a large office with coworkers, but then her work went fully remote. For four months, Leeds, now 69, could not see her daughter. She became increasingly depressed.
“I felt like my whole world was falling apart, like I no longer had the skills to interact with people because we were told to stay at home,” Leeds said.
Leeds hardly represents a unique case. While the pandemic exacerbated the social isolation of older adults, even before Covid-19 older Americans were experiencing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. Nearly one-quarter of American adults age 65 and older are considered to be “socially isolated” — a circumstance in which a person has few social relationships and infrequent social contact with others. Feelings of loneliness — a subjective state that someone may feel regardless of their social contacts — are rising among older adults, too.
Both social isolation and loneliness are correlated with negative health outcomes, and older adults tend to face these challenges more acutely because they’re more likely to have their social interaction impaired by hearing loss, not working, mobility problems, chronic illness or the death of a spouse or friends.
It’s a growing problem nationwide but in particular in New York, where the share of older adults is surging. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of New Yorkers over age 65 grew by 31 percent, and the number of older adults in the state living in poverty increased by a staggering 37 percent, according to the Center for an Urban Future.
This is the challenge that UJA-Federation of New York sought to address when it launched a pioneering program in April 2021 called Isolation to Connection, which aims to identify isolated older adults and connect them to social activities, community programs and services. Now operating in all the JCCs on Long Island and one in Westchester County, Isolation to Connection helps people over age 65 connect with each other and with resources either at the JCC or at their home. The program coordinates social outings, local community programs, exercise classes, support groups, transportation and psychotherapy sessions, among other things.
When Leeds reached out to her local JCC, the Mid-Island Y Jewish Community Center, for help dealing with her isolation, staffers with the program swung into action.
“I was at a very low point when I called the Y JCC. I told them I needed help,” Leeds said.
A “connection specialist” from Isolation to Connection quickly put Leeds in touch with a social worker, who helped Leeds by encouraging her to focus on things to look forward to — anything from a trip to the supermarket to a dream trip to Ireland. Last March, Leeds finally went on her long-awaited Ireland trip, and she recently attended her first in-person connection event at the JCC.
“The pandemic laid bare the issue of loneliness across our community, particularly among older adults,” said Eric S. Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation. “Now we’re leading the way in creating a sense of belonging and connection for people who may otherwise feel unseen and forgotten. When we see an emerging communal need, we look for opportunities to leverage our partners and offer a scalable solution — that’s always been UJA’s unique role.”
One of the most important elements of the program is the connection specialists at each JCC, whose role is to connect the older adults to resources based on their individual needs.
“The smiles and conversation make a significant impact on the health of this vulnerable population. This program really allows the participants to get life-altering services,” said Rick Lewis, CEO of the Mid-Island Y JCC. “UJA-Federation’s support of our JCCs has empowered us to serve our community on a deeper level in combatting loneliness.”
When Saralee Baim, a Long Islander in her late 70s who recently had lost her husband, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2022, she went looking for a program to work through her grief and deal with her new illness. Her daughter called the Mid-Island Y JCC and put her in touch with the Isolation to Connection specialist there, Puja Malhotra, who connected Baim to a support group for people with Parkinson’s.
Baim began coming to the JCC four days a week and soon joined its bereavement group, a swim class for people with movement disorders and a support group for those with early-stage memory loss. Malhotra also helped Baim find a dentist and therapist.
“I needed support,” Baim said. “I really tried to focus on the help I can gather here. The JCC is the focus of my help. It’s provided me with opportunities I’d generally hold back from based on my personality.”
Even though Baim, now 79, lives with her daughter and a grandchild, she felt she needed to be with people who understood what she was going through. Once a month she attends a JCC dinner at a nearby diner with other people from the Parkinson’s group.
Healthcare experts say that addressing the isolation of older adults is critical to their health and wellbeing. Just as a physician might offer a medical prescription to someone in need of one, Isolation to Connection aims to give older adults a “social prescription” — a way for them to connect to other people, activities, and services that address their social, practical and emotional needs.
“Social prescribing is a way that many lonely, depressed, anxious people can find local solutions to feel better,” said Dan Morse, the Cofounder of Social Prescribing USA, which encourages doctors to “prescribe” activities such as art, nature activities and volunteering to isolated patients as a way of bolstering their health.
Northwell Health, which is New York State’s largest healthcare provider, is now referring patients to Isolation to Connection. Northwell doctors who see older adults at their clinics have told UJA that while they can address their patients’ medical issues, they need programs like Isolation to Connection to deal with patients’ feelings of isolation — which sometimes are the main reason for their visit to a health clinic.
Ultimately, UJA hopes it can make Isolation to Connection into a statewide program, expanding the social prescribing movement in New York in partnership with other funders.
“There’s a significant demand for the Isolation to Connection program, indicating just how endemic loneliness is among the older population. We want to bring connection specialists to every neighborhood and community around New York,” said Sepi Djavaheri, UJA senior community mobilizer. “We’re just getting started.”
This story was sponsored by and produced in partnership with UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for Jews everywhere and New Yorkers of all backgrounds, responds to crises close to home and far away, and shapes the Jewish future. This article was produced by JTA's native content team.More from UJA-Federation of New York