NEW MARYLAND LAW HELPS CAREGIVERS
LIBRARY OFFERS LIFELONG LEARNING
Henry comes to the Olney Branch of the Montgomery County Public Libraries nearly every day. Most days he walks from the James Creek neighborhood where he has been staying with friends since he arrived from Liberia earlier this year. He comes to use the public computers. When he saw a flyer for “Tech Time for Seniors” at the library he jumped at the chance to have a free ride to the event, courtesy of Olney Home for Life.
“There’s no end to learning,” said the retired science teacher, whose research is focused on how to build a school in Liberia. Many schools were destroyed during Liberia’s bloody Civil War (1989-1997).
Since its founding in 2012, Olney Home for Life (OHFL) has provided more than 10,000 hours of service to local senior citizens. Those services include free rides to medical appointments and other area locations such as the grocery store or the library. “Tech Time for Seniors,” a program made possible by the Olney Library, Olney Home for Life and the Jewish Council on Aging’s Heyman Interages Center, allows high school students to earn Student Service Learning hours by training seniors to use e-readers and access library resources on mobile devices.
“JCA has been training seniors to use computers for years” said Leah Bradley, Assistant Director of Heyman Interages Center, “and we have many inter-generational programs offered at area schools. But this is the first program we are involved with of its kind at a county library. It was spearheaded by Olney Home for Life who contacted us about addressing senior tech needs through an intergenerational approach at the Olney Library.”
“We are pleased to collaborate with other organizations to bring worthwhile programs like this one to Olney-area seniors,” said Tom Brunetto, chair of Olney Home for Life’s Board of Directors.
Prior to each session, Bradley briefs the trainers—volunteer high school students—on how to interact with seniors, especially cautioning them to avoid stereotypes attributed to older people. She reminds them that while some seniors may not be well-versed in today’s technologies they have much wisdom to impart to young people. Library staff reviews with senior attendees how to find e-books and other resources on the Montgomery County Public Library (MCPL) webpage.
In addition to “Tech Time for Seniors,” the Olney Library offers many services for seniors. Large print and audiobooks are available. Library staff can also help library customers register for services from the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Those include digital talking books. Library staff will also help seniors learn about e-books, e-magazines, and e-audiobooks available from the Library’s website.
Through MCPL’s partnership with AARP, the Olney Library offers tax preparation and safe driver classes for seniors. MCPL also collaborates with the county’s Alzheimer’s Association to offer the Memory Cafe, a social event for people living with early-stage memory loss, at several branch libraries. Seniors can also attend a range of adult programs, including a daytime and evening book club, and a Jewish book club.
“We also offer book bundles of picture books. Grandparents find these helpful when choosing books share with their grandchildren,” said Olney Branch Manager Barbara McClayton. “From the littlest child to seniors, the Olney Library offers something for everyone.”
Visit Olney Library’s Calendar of Events at www.montgomerycountymd.gov/library/branches/olney.html#Events
To volunteer or seek senior services through OHFL or JCA, go to www.olneyhomeforlife.org, (301)446-2512; www.accessjca.org, (301) 255-4200.
LONELINESS GROWS FROM INDIVIDUAL ACHE TO PUBLIC HEALTH HAZARD
It torments the young and terrorizes the old. It carved “caverns” in Emily Dickinson’s soul and left William Blake “bereaved of light.”
Loneliness, long a bane of humanity, is increasingly seen today as a serious public health hazard. Scientists who have identified significant links between loneliness and illness are pursuing the precise biological mechanisms that make it such a menace, digging down to the molecular level and finding that social isolation changes the human genome in profound, long-lasting ways.
Not only that, but the potential for damage caused by these genetic changes appears comparable to the injuries to health from smoking and, even worse, from diabetes and obesity. The scientists’ conclusion: Loneliness can be a lethal risk. And the United States — which so prizes individuality — is doing far too little to alleviate it.
“In public health, we talk all the time about obesity and smoking and have all these interventions, but not about people who are lonely and socially isolated,” said Kerstin Gerst Emerson, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology. “There are really tangible, terrible outcomes. Lonely people are dying, they’re less healthy, and they are costing our society more.”
Psychologist Steve Cole, who studies how social environments affect gene expression, says researchers have known for years that lonely people are at greater risk for heart attacks, metastatic cancer, Alzheimer’s and other ills. “But we haven’t understood why,” he said.
Then last year, Cole and his colleagues at the UCLA School of Medicine, along with collaborators at the University of California at Davis and the University of Chicago, uncovered complex immune system responses at work in lonely people. They found that social isolation turned up the activity of genes responsible for inflammation and turned down the activity of genes that produce antibodies to fight infection.
The abnormalities were discovered in monocytes, a type of white blood cell, produced in the bone marrow, that is dramatically changed in people who are socially isolated. Monocytes play a special immunological role and are one of the body’s first lines of defense against infection. However, immature monocytes cause inflammation and reduce antibody protection. And they are what proliferates in the blood of lonely people.
Such cellular changes, says University of Chicago social neuroscientist John Cacioppo, are a byproduct of human evolution.
Early on, when survival depended crucially on cooperation and communication, social isolation was a huge risk. So evolution shaped the primitive human brain to desire and need social interaction in the same way it shaped the brain to desire and need food.
The pain of loneliness is like the pain of hunger — it’s a biological signal that something is wrong.
“When you get hungry you may not be aware your blood sugar level is dropping, but if you’re driving and you see the golden arches [of McDonald’s],” you’ll pull in for food, Cacioppo said.
Today, social isolation is often an unavoidable lifestyle. But it puts the body, on the cellular level, on constant alert for a threat. That helps explain why lonely people are more likely to act negatively toward others, which makes it that much harder for them to forge relationships.
“I do see these patients all the time,” said psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds, who has a private practice in Cambridge, Mass., and has co-written two books on the subject. “Many of the people who end up lonely give off signals they want to be alone out of anxiety. . . . Feeling left out has a huge effect on our psyche from our evolutionary worries that everyone else will survive and we won’t.”
The most broadly accepted definition of loneliness is the distress people feel when reality fails to meet their ideal of social relationships. Loneliness is not synonymous with being alone. Many people live solitary lives but are not lonely. Conversely, being surrounded by others is no guarantee against loneliness.
Loneliness is also not the same as depression, though the two often go hand in hand. The first, related to the drive to belong, is motivational. The other, a more general feeling of sadness or hopelessness, is not.
At the University of Georgia, Gerst and health economist Jayani Jayawardhana wanted to see how widespread the distress from loneliness actually is. They analyzed longitudinal data from two national health and retirement studies conducted in 2008 and 2012. Through the answers provided by 7,060 individuals 60 and older, the researchers concluded that chronic loneliness was “a significant public health issue,” one that “contributes to a cycle of illness and health-care utilization.”
Among their more unusual findings: Even when controlling for an increase in physician visits because of illness, loneliness appeared to be an important predictor of those visits. The doctor-patient relationship, it seemed, provided one of the few social outlets for isolated people.
Psychotherapist Matt Lundquist, director of TriBeCa Therapy in New York City, has become something of an expert on loneliness. Hardly a week goes by, he says, without one of his patients expressing “agony” over something seen on Facebook. “It’s a reinforcement that everybody has these connections and [they] don’t,” he said Friday.
Lundquist is “shocked that there isn’t more conversation” about social isolation within public-health circles. “Loneliness is a brutal issue.”
A study published online last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests there is also a parallel effect with health and loneliness. With every positive increase in social relationships, researchers in North Carolina and China saw improvement in specific physiological biomarkers such as blood pressure and body mass index.
The largest positive effect was associated with those who had a variety of relationships, such as with friends, romantic partners and co-workers.
“Each one of these may provide different pathways . . . [that] can potentially impact health,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University who recently analyzed 70 different loneliness studies from around the world. They covered more than 3.4 million participants over a period of 35 years.
Many researchers believe the United States is not doing enough to address loneliness as a public health issue. For inspiration, they point to the United Kingdom. Begun in 2011, its national Campaign to End Loneliness involvesfive social-service agencies and about 2,500 smaller organizations, all working to raise people’s awareness of loneliness.
“Much of our time is spent campaigning: communicating with, convincing and persuading those who make choices about health and health-care spending to tackle and prevent loneliness,” Kellie Payne, the campaign’s learning and research manager, wrote in an email.
German psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann could have predicted the science more than a half-century ago. One of the first to examine social isolation from an empirical perspective, she wrote that the “naked horror” of loneliness shadows our lives because the longing for intimacy is always with us.
“There is no human being who is not threatened by its loss.”
By Amy Ellis Nutt