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The Foundation for Social Connection: Laying Cross-Sector Groundwork to End Loneliness

By Mark Ogilbee posted 07-07-2022 06:28 PM

  
Jillian Racoosin (left) of the Foundation for Social Connection leads a discussion panel

AgeTech Collaborative™ participant Foundation for Social Connection is a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing social isolation and loneliness through education, increasing public awareness, and promoting innovative research and evidence-based solutions to help people be socially engaged in society. 

We sat down to talk with Jillian Racoosin, the Foundation’s deputy executive director, to find out more about the Foundation and its work. 
 

What is the Foundation for Social Connection all about? 

We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to work toward every American having the support necessary to be socially engaged in society. 

To accomplish that, we’ve put together a Scientific Advisory Council of about 12 leading academics and researchers in the fields of social health, social science, isolation, loneliness and connections. The Council comes together and supports us on a number of projects and research initiatives.  

Currently, we’re working on our Systemic Framework, which is a multi-sector report, looking at individual areas such as health, housing, nutrition, education and so forth. We’re studying these things from the level of an individual person all the way up through the societal level, and asking things like, “Who are the stakeholders involved? What are the practices and strategies that show promise?” As we complete chapters of the report, we release them on our website for public comment. (You can view the health sector chapter of the report here.)

 

That sounds extremely thorough, like you’re laying a solid foundation for future endeavors. 

I'm so happy to hear you say that, because that's what we set out to do. We’re drawing on different methodologies and bringing those together to build a foundation across sectors, because we know that in order to solve the crisis of disconnection in our country, we’re going to need partners from different sectors, both public and private. Our goal for each of these chapters in the Systemic Framework is to speak to stakeholders in that particular sector, but also to bridge the gaps between them. 

 

What surprising things have you found in the course of your research? 

It’s really interesting to see how different kinds of organizations that have members who are older adults realize that they, the organizations, are the ones that need to step in to help address loneliness. What are the places — maybe a community center, maybe a religious setting — where older adults are living, playing, seeing each other? These are the places where we want to target interventions or solutions. For example, Meals on Wheels now has a program called More Than a Meal, which is thinking about how they can practice social connection strategies when they are bringing people food. 

 

What are some of the startups you’re working with? 

One really interesting group is called Art Pharmacy, which uses “social prescribing” as a different path than traditional pharmaceuticals. So if you went to your behavioral health provider and said that you’re struggling with loneliness, your provider might “prescribe” you a visit to a museum or a concert — some way to become more connected to your community specifically through the arts, which has been shown to be a great way to connect and to self-regulate your feelings. 

 

I’ve heard you use the phrase “the science of loneliness.” What do you mean by that? 

There are scientific measures for studying isolation, loneliness and social connection. For instance, you can measure how many people you have around you that you can count on or call up when you have a problem in your life. That's an objective measure; there are other measures that are subjective. 

Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who is the chair of our Scientific Advisory Council, has done a lot of work with causality and has shown that chronic loneliness can lead to early death. She’s shown that it can provide the same health outcomes as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! In this country, we’ve invested so much into educating people about the dangers of smoking, yet here we have this hidden epidemic of loneliness that can cause similar health outcomes. So we want to make sure that it’s receiving the same attention, the same investment into research and programming, so we can reduce the levels of loneliness. 
 

What are the biggest obstacles the Foundation has encountered in its work? 

The first challenge across the board is educating the public on why this is such a critical topic to care about and invest in. A silver lining of the pandemic is that words like “social isolation” and “loneliness” have become so prevalent that this is now something that’s tangible to people. 

The second challenge is the lack of research on those solutions that actually work in effectively addressing the mental distress, depression and other conditions that arise from loneliness. So we need to foster innovation; we need partners to test and evaluate; and we need the funding to do all that. 

 

How can people discover more or get involved in the Foundation for Social Connection’s work? 

People can check out the weekly research report that the Foundation puts out every Friday. We also have our annual conference in October, called Action Forum: Ending Social Isolation and Loneliness. We also have a speakers' series where leaders share their experiences, research and solutions. 

And if anyone in the entrepreneur and innovator community is looking to learn more about the research and science around social connectedness, we would love to speak with them. They can email us at info@social-connection.org. 

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