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Is Technology the Answer to the Social Isolation Crisis?
By Dava Stewart
Social Work Today
Vol. 21 No. 4 P. 26

The winners of the MENTAL Health Innovation Challenge provide a glimpse of the innovative ideas that could prove to be difference makers.

Social isolation and loneliness, particularly among older and disabled people, has reached such a level that it can be considered a public health crisis. In the decade prior to the pandemic, organizations were working toward solutions. The pandemic, of course, intensified and magnified the problem.

The Administration for Community Living (ACL), in collaboration with the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, along with numerous partners, announced a contest in June 2020. The goal of the MENTAL Health Innovation Challenge was to bring together entities that could help address the issues of social isolation and loneliness.

Interestingly, most of the 38 entrants were nonprofits and others who were already working in this important space, rather than technology companies.

The field was narrowed down to eight, and plans were put in place to announce the winner at CES 2021, a trade show known for debuting groundbreaking technology innovations. Plus, the event is staged by the Consumer Technology Association, which is affiliated with the Consumer Technology Association Foundation, a charitable foundation whose focus is linking older adults and people with disabilities with technologies to enhance their lives. Announcing the winners of the MENTAL Health Innovation contest at CES was a natural fit.

In the end, the contest judges couldn’t choose one organization. Since collaboration was strongly encouraged, that didn’t come as a huge surprise. Nevertheless, No Wrong Door Virginia’s entry, Social Health Connector (or SoHeCo), and United Way Worldwide’s YouConnect were named winners. The two organizations agreed to work together and split the combined first and second place winnings of $550,000 to work on two elements necessary for any practical solution: an assessment tool that anyone could use to find out if they are at risk of being socially isolated, and a way to connect socially isolated people with organizations or services that can help.

AARP Foundation is providing support in a few ways. For example, AARP Foundation representatives were on the judging panel and, once the winners were declared, the foundation assembled an advisory group. According to Emily Allen, senior vice president of AARP Foundation Programs, the two winners “both brought something to the table.” The combination of United Way Worldwide’s massive national database and No Wrong Door Virginia’s thorough, accessible assessment tool are coming together to provide a powerful weapon in combating social isolation and loneliness.

Many Services Are Underused
It’s amazing how many services and resources exist that could be deployed to combat social isolation and loneliness. Spreading the word is a priority for the winners. Even at the local level, there are usually so many services, organizations, and resources available that it’s difficult or even impossible to keep up with all of them, even for professionals in the field.

The 211 systems in place to help people find social resources have more than 900,000 different services in their databases, according to Matthew Aliberti of Team YouConnect. Even at the local level, No Wrong Door Virginia has around 27,000 services and resources available. No Wrong Door is a national network, so it’s probably safe to assume that all of the other affiliates have a comparable number of resources. This raises the question: How can even a trained professional navigate that number of resources, never mind a socially isolated person?

“One result of the vast number of resources is that they are sometimes underused,” says Sara Link, director of No Wrong Door Virginia at the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. “Twenty-seven thousand is all of the services available [in Virginia Navigator], although not all are for social isolation and loneliness. People aren’t always aware of even things like Area Agencies on Aging. They exist across the country as a whole network, and they are funded under the Older Americans Act, which was signed into law in 1965. There are 25 in Virginia.”

The Health Impact of Social Isolation
These resources exist, in part, because social isolation and loneliness represent a serious problem. Social isolation affects people’s health in a variety of ways. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social isolation increases the risk of premature death, dementia, heart disease and stroke, depression, anxiety, and suicide. If a person already has a chronic condition, such as heart disease, social isolation also increases the risks associated with the condition.

Addressing the problem of social isolation and loneliness can help reduce other problems. The pandemic has brought the issue of social isolation into the national spotlight as it extended its reach to a wider segment of the population. People who, under ordinary circumstances, wouldn’t be at risk of loneliness or social isolation now find themselves struggling. Older people, especially early in the pandemic, faced increased risk of social isolation and loneliness due to the recommendation that they remain physically distant from friends and family. Although physically distancing protected people, it had another impact.

While discussing the assessment tool that No Wrong Door Virginia is currently testing, Link says the group noticed a significant increase in people who had experienced disruptive or traumatic life events and were at a much higher risk of social isolation than before the pandemic.

“With the testers we had coming through, 70% of people had experienced disruptive life events, and research shows that trauma increases the odds of dissatisfaction by 67%,” she says.

According to Link, building a tool and a program to address social isolation may have another benefit—helping to reduce the stigma associated with social isolation. She says no one likes to think they don’t have friends or a support system. It may feel like admitting that there’s something wrong with you when that’s not really the case. However, Link notes that when people see how many resources are available, it may mitigate that feeling.

Bringing Together Data, Infrastructure, and Expertise
One of the strengths emerging from the ACL Mental Health Challenge is the convergence of vast databases of information, existing infrastructure, and innovation. AARP Foundation has been working to meet the needs of older adults and people with disabilities for a long time. Around a year ago, AARP Foundation was part of a working group “digging into the topic of social isolation,” Allen says.

The group looked at how social isolation was impacting older adults and people with disabilities prepandemic and then during the pandemic. That led it to consider several questions, such as “what sort of role ACL and other organizations could play, and who could be part of helping to develop a national clearinghouse focused on social isolation and loneliness,” Allen says. “What we expected was more of a technology corporation or business that could provide an algorithm or matching system that would allow someone to come on, put in their characteristics or problems, and be matched with the right solution for them.”

For example, if a person living with a disability is isolated, might there be a piece of assistive technology that could help?

Technology giants such as Google, Microsoft, and Amazon served a different role. They didn’t enter the contest but did judge and provide support to a number of candidates. Steve Ewell, executive director at the CTA Foundation, says that part of the reason the winners were announced at CES was to highlight the tech component.

“Some real opportunities have come out of having nonprofit groups like United Way Worldwide and No Wrong Door Virginia partner and work with some of the private sector cloud companies,” he says. Link agrees, saying, “If COVID taught us anything, it’s the importance of public and private partnerships.”

Nonprofits and other organizations that have been working on the issue of social isolation and loneliness among older adults and people with disabilities contribute a depth of knowledge, while private companies bring innovation to the table.

Putting the Puzzle Together
United Way Worldwide and No Wrong Door Virginia are providing different pieces of the puzzle. No Wrong Door Virginia’s contribution, SoHeCo, provides highly personalized results based on how the user answers several questions. For example, if someone indicates that they don’t feel safe, the tool provides the contact information for local authorities, shelters, and other nearby resources that can help quickly.

The assessment tool exceeds the highest accessibility standards and builds on the work the organization has been doing for many years. The results draw from the organizations and resources compiled in two statewide resource directories, Virginia Navigator and 211 Virginia.

United Way Worldwide’s effort, YouConnect, gathers information from 240 agencies that operate 211 systems around the country. Connecting to the network of 211 systems provides YouConnect with an enormous list of services, supports, and resources. In the video presentation at CES, Aliberti said, “On one powerful, simple site we’ll have national reach and local depth.”

Eventually, the goal is to integrate the database of resources with the assessment tool, so that regardless of location, a user can take the assessment and receive a personalized, actionable plan to address social isolation in ways that are interesting to the individual and helpful in meeting other needs as well.

Accessibility and Outreach
One potential issue is how people will access the assessment tool once everything is up and running. If an older person or a person with a disability is socially isolated, has low technology skills, and faces issues such as lack of mobility, it’s unlikely they will stumble across the assessment and get the help they need.

“We see it as top-down and ground-up when it comes to awareness,” Allen says. “We really see the nationwide network, a community of organizations already serving older adults and disabled people, and we plan to promote within that network.”

AARP Foundation and the many partners working on this project are looking across sectors as they plan for an awareness campaign. “It could be at a hospital or affordable senior housing,” Allen says. “Or a person might be introduced to the assessment through the local Area Agency on Aging. Someone going to a senior center for a meal and interacting with the staff there might find an opportunity to take the assessment.”

Also, AARP Foundation has a call to action on its site that asks, “How might social isolation be impacting you?”

Ewell notes that outreach to families and caregivers is also an important channel for making the assessment widely available. In addition, the program will provide alternative interfaces.

Working with United Way Worldwide and the 211 system gives people the opportunity to take advantage of the resources via the phone. Elsewhere, on-the-ground agencies such as Older Adults Technology Services and the national network of No Wrong Door can also lend a hand.

A Collaborative Timeline
For now, the groups involved are each working separately. “We are all moving forward at our own pace,” Link says, noting that No Wrong Door Virginia has an internal target date to begin a pilot with United Way Worldwide but there are always unexpected factors that could impact that goal.

The clearinghouse will live at CommitToConnect.org; Allen says they have recently completed a soft launch, with plans for a real launch in the next few months. In the meantime, they are putting together a robust outreach program to raise awareness of both the problems associated with social isolation and loneliness and the new tools.

Like any other health issue, “social isolation needs to be screened for and assessed,” Allen says. “Whether it’s hunger or issues of homelessness, you have to identify it through assessment, then you have to make a plan to address it.”

Ewell encourages social workers to test the new tools, saying, “See what’s in there, and if there are organizations that aren’t in there yet, it’s a good opportunity to populate the database and make it even more valuable.”

The powerful combination of public and private enterprises working together shows promise to become another weapon in the longtime battle against social isolation and loneliness. It’s hopeful that the innovation triggered by the MENTAL Health Challenge and the streamlined availability of crucial tools at CommitToConnect.org will be able to make a difference in the lives of many.

— Dava Stewart is a freelance writer based in Tennessee.