Are You Lonesome? How Minnesota Seniors Are Combating Social Isolation

Are You Lonesome? How Minnesota Seniors Are Combating Social Isolation

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Photo: Clockwise from left, "Golden Girls" Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Estelle Getty.

Part 1

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn.--Kim Griswold Holmberg’s older daughter worries about her.

“Golden Girls” to Share
Minneapolis House

The lovely old house overlooks Lake Nokomis in south Minneapolis. Inside are spacious rooms — library, sun porch, dining room, kitchen, living room with fireplace, all elegantly remodeled and decorated. For the moment, the house sits empty, waiting for a foursome of would-be “Golden Girls” to make it their home.

Roxanne Cornell, a self-described “social entrepreneur,” came up with the idea to open a house to be shared by a group of women in their 60s or 70s. It’s part of an organization she founded and calls Vibrante. If successful, it eventually will include other houses.

Cornell said she was inspired by “The Golden Girls,” the popular and award-winning 1985-92 sitcom about four single older women in Miami who, having responded to a “room for rent” posting, live together.

“I’m a fan of the show, so I thought, why don’t you create a ‘Golden Girls’ home?” she said. “The Golden Girls cared for each other. Loved each other. Had fun together. Just because you’re 80 years old doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.”

As a social worker who long served as a life-care planner for a group of lawyers specializing in elder care, Cornell saw flaws in existing living arrangements for aging people. She noticed that residents of larger senior developments were often isolated, especially if they weren’t naturally outgoing. Cornell envisioned a more intimate housing arrangement — a place where women would have someone to talk to when they got home at night.

So she bought the house for $580,000 and put another $300,000 into remodeling it, including creating four personal “suites,” each with its own bathroom.

Cornell, 62, won’t be living there herself — she lives nearby, with her spouse — but will serve as a “concierge,” helping with “anything from getting tickets to the Guthrie and dinner reservations and setting up transportation if you want somebody to go to the doctor with you,” she said. “If you need some help navigating the system, whatever that system might look like, I could be an advocate.”

Since the residents will presumably start off as strangers, Cornell plans to select a compatible group. Her vetting process will include questioning candidates about their lifestyle habits, politics and values and ways of handling conflict.

Her social work has required her to analyze human behavior, and she has confidence in her ability to select like-minded individuals. “I only hope these women will bond, and make friends and care for one another. That’s what I envision.”

They’ll also be fairly affluent. Rents at the house range from $2,700 to $4,400, depending on the size of the suite. An additional $350 monthly fee covers maintenance and concierge services. Future Vibrante households may be smaller or less expensive, Cornell said.

“This is a social experiment. No one wrote the book on how to do this. But I have lots of faith that this is going to work.”

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--Katy Read

“She worries that her old mom spends way too much time alone,” said Holmberg, 61. And it’s true, she said. “I’ve been alone for the last 12 years, essentially.

That’s how long ago Holmberg divorced, after a 25-year marriage. Now she lives in an apartment in Plymouth — usually alone, although her younger daughter, 25, is living there temporarily. Her other daughter lives in Vietnam, so they get together only once a year or so.

Holmberg recently broke off a 12-year relationship with a man in Duluth — a long-distance relationship that left her alone much of the time. Most of her friends are married and busy with other things. Even at work, Holmberg spends whole days alone, sitting in model homes as a representative for a builder, waiting for the occasional drop-in visitor.

A “Mind-Over-Matter Thing”

Holmberg makes an effort not to dwell on loneliness.

“I know a lot of people my age suffer from varying degrees of depression because of it,” she said. “It does become a mind-over-matter kind of thing.”

Depression is one of the most obvious signs of loneliness. But as researchers increasingly investigate the health effects of social isolation, they’ve linked it to a host of emotional, physical and cognitive problems.

Though not widely recognized by the public or even many health organizations, social isolation is a serious health threat — comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation.

“Prolonged isolation puts millions of people 50 and up at risk of diminished health,” Ryerson said, speaking last fall at a Gerontological Society of America conference.

Researchers have found associations between social isolation and a long list of ailments, including dementia, heart disease, stroke, diminished immunity, disrupted sleep, high blood pressure — even increased chance of death. A 2010 study found that people with adequate social relationships have a 50 percent greater likelihood of survival compared with those with insufficient relationships. Another study found that lack of social engagement increases the risk of suicide.

Loneliness can strike at any life stage, of course. But the years of midlife and beyond bring events that can trigger or increase it: divorce, widowhood, children leaving home, friends’ deaths, driving restrictions, mobility, hearing or vision limitations and other health problems. People who live in rural areas, belong to marginalized communities or don’t speak fluent English are at greater risk. As the overall population ages, loneliness threatens to become epidemic.

Americans once commonly lived with or near their extended families, letting people of different generations help one another. But in recent decades, the culture has become more geographically mobile. Families are scattered around the country or world. Few live in multigenerational households. Meanwhile, membership in traditional social organizations, such as churches and civic groups, has declined.

“A majority of the seniors we see are socially isolated and have loneliness and medical issues related to it,” said Joel Theisen, founder and CEO of Lifesprk, an organization based in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina that provides services for seniors.

“I think, unfortunately, we have isolation by design. Even though we don’t want to call it that, we still institutionalize and isolate [older people]. We haven’t pulled our families closer together; we’ve pushed them further apart.”

Traditionally, older people have played an important part in families, offering help and knowledge, he said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship we’ve basically butchered.”

The Lonely Have Doubled

In an AARP survey of Americans older than 45, the percentage who said they were lonely had doubled since the 1980s. Up to 40 percent now report feeling lonely.

An individual’s degree of loneliness can be hard to assess. For one thing, it’s subjective — not everyone who lives alone feels lonely. And it carries a stigma; while Holmberg said she has no problem discussing her own feelings, she has lonely friends who won’t talk about theirs. Admitting to loneliness feels tantamount to admitting social weakness, unlikability or failure at friendship and love.

And even if a doctor could diagnose loneliness, a physician can offer few solutions beyond medication to treat the depression, Theisen said.

In Minnesota, more than 250,000 people over 60 live alone. “Minnesota nice” — a term sometimes used ironically to indicate residents’ superficial friendliness but reticence about forming closer bonds with strangers — may exacerbate isolation.

“This ‘Minnesota nice’ thing — when will we see it? ’Cause it hasn’t happened so far,” said Holmberg, who was born and raised here.

Several years ago, Britain began devoting public funds and national attention to combat loneliness, launching programs through local and national governments. In this country, where about one in three people older than 65 (and half over 85) live alone, organized efforts are more recent.

But social service agencies throughout the Upper Midwest have begun hosting parties, delivering home-cooked meals and visiting senior centers. Some programs match older people with younger or peer volunteers. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging and the AARP are collaborating nationwide to help seniors assess their risk of isolation and connect them with services.

The association has published a brochure offering resources and suggestions for staying socially active: calling friends to get together, taking a class, volunteering for a cause, checking out faith-based organizations and their group events.

Katy Read wrote this series for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Retirement Research Foundation.