Turning Theory Into Action: We Are Family Builds Community to Fight Isolation

Feelings of belonging and access to social support from the community have incredible health benefits. Those with opportunities to build sustainable relationships over time are happier and live longer than those who are less connected. In fact, “Good, close relationships appear to buffer us from the problems of getting old,” says Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Loneliness and isolation are social determinants of health affecting more than 8 million adults over the age of 50. Isolated individuals are more likely to experience depression, morbidity and cognitive decline. Only 53 percent of Americans say they have meaningful in-person interactions, according to a 2018 study by Cigna exploring loneliness in the United States. Those experiencing poor health are also more likely to be lonely.

Although lack of access to social support for seniors in the United States is disheartening, one community organization is actively working to reverse the negative effects of senior loneliness through volunteer work.

We Are Family is a senior outreach network that mobilizes local volunteers to reach out to seniors in Washington D.C., offering free services and companionship to prevent isolation, allowing area seniors to live a healthier life. We Are Family provides services such as monthly grocery deliveries, emergency cleaning, transportation and friendly home visits. Every year on Thanksgiving, the organization donates over 700 turkeys to seniors’ homes and also offers a Christmas delivery so those they serve receive a gift during the holidays. They also provide organizing and leadership training assistance to allow seniors to voice their concerns to appropriate constituents in their communities. It’s all about making sure older adults feel valued and a part of the conversation, reminding them that they are respected as members of the communities where they live.

This month, The Root Cause Coalition staff volunteered with We Are Family and helped deliver fresh produce from a local farmer’s market to seniors living in a nearby apartment complex. TRCC staff members had an opportunity to meet some of the seniors impacted by We Are Family’s service, and members of their board, comprised of local seniors themselves.

The Root Cause Coalition team members with Deloris Kilgo, a participant of We Are Family’s meal delivery program

The Root Cause Coalition staff takes a photo with Ronald Gray, board member at We Are Family

The organization is supported by co-directors Mark Andersen and his wife Tulin Ozdeger along with a network of volunteers who dedicate their time to making seniors feel included and aware of what’s happening in their communities. “Mark and Tulin truly take the We Are Family name to definition,” says Francis Cordero, volunteer and board member at We Are Family. Their mission is, “to serve the people that were being left behind and in ways they were being left behind.” For seniors without access to family, visits from volunteers help provide emotional and financial support to improve their quality of life. For example, low-income seniors who spend a majority of their income on rent and medication struggle with basic necessities. When volunteers deliver groceries to the home of the seniors, they are mitigating transportation and food costs.

Inclusion is a priority for Cordero and other volunteers who are able to build trust among the older adults they serve, who can then alert We Are Family of any issues impacting their ability to thrive at home. By frequently checking in with seniors, volunteers can ensure safer environments and be responsive to needs. “Nothing is more fulfilling than knowing that you are keeping them from being hungry, lonely or living in life-threatening environments,” Cordero says.

The volunteer efforts of the local community are invaluable to the wellbeing of older adults at risk for social isolation. Their work shows how being involved and listened to can improve health outcomes. By volunteering time, we may help delay seniors from medical interventions sooner, reducing health costs and improving the ability to age in place. If you would like to help We Are Family, please donate or visit their website to sign up as a volunteer at https://www.wearefamilydc.org/get-involved/volunteer/.