Blog Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Opening the door: How to engage a “loner”

Written by Sarah Z. Levinson, St. Louis NORC manager, Jewish Federation of St. Louis

The desire to engage individuals who are isolated appears like the best goal possible. After all, loneliness and social isolation are correlated with increased health risks and decreased quality of life. But what about people who actually prefer to be alone?

They may not embrace the recommendation of benevolent individuals to attend a group activity, invite a friendly visitor into their home, or participate in a telephone reassurance program. While there may be a desire to engage this “loner” because it will be beneficial to their lifestyle, a special type of sensitivity and respect for that person’s space and preference is necessary.

Engagement at any age, especially older adulthood, means honoring an individual’s past experiences and current desires. Rather than advocating for what the research illustrates is most beneficial and imposing our own ideals, we first need to focus on finding out what this person values and what will meet their needs. Often, this type of interaction is the first step towards meaningful engagement. By listening to what an individual wants and delivering the service, engagement becomes a natural process.

For example, even brief conversations with the person who cleans their home, provides a ride to a medical appointment, changes the light bulb, delivers a meal, or assists them with a computer problem, may engage someone in a meaningful way. Others may prefer reminiscing about the past — humming the tunes of old songs or sharing traditions or special foods they enjoyed as a child.

At St. Louis NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community), we strive to honor individual’s desires and preferences. By connecting people to each other, we continue to build community that respects and cares about who people are today while acknowledging their past. It’s a challenge to figure out how to engage persons who appear to need it most, but by working on this process one piece at a time, the most meaningful engagement process has already begun.

Here are some resources you might find helpful: