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Quinnipiac Professor Aims For Zero Isolation

Connecticut Health I-Team

Susan Proctor, 76, lives in subsidized senior housing in Wilton. Although she’s called it home for 10 years, she has found it very confining. 

“People tend to be behind closed doors watching television,” said Proctor. “I couldn’t do that.”

Proctor came across an article about the Zero Isolation study in the December 2019 AARP Magazine. 

Susan Proctor participated in the Zero Isolation program this summer
Credit Susan Proctor / Susan Proctor
Susan Proctor
Susan Proctor participated in the Zero Isolation program this summer

Proctor, wanting to prevent loneliness and isolation from affecting her physical health, decided to call to learn more about the program.

“It would be especially critical for someone like me because my family, what is left, is on the West Coast, and holidays don’t count without family,” said Proctor. “I have to be very careful not to get depressed. Nick provided ways to do that.”

Nick is Quinnipiac professor Nicholas Nicholson. He has been studying isolation in the aging population for years, which inspired him to develop the Zero Isolation pilot program.

“This program was really supposed to be an on-ground, in-person experience,” said Nicholson, who started the program in 2019. “When the pandemic forced a situation where people couldn’t interact in that way, now it’s offered in an online-only experience.”

The groups also can meet over the phone, and they work on assignments aimed at breaking the pattern of social isolation -- something like reaching out to a neighbor or friend they haven’t talked to in some time.

“As part of their class or group, I as a facilitator am asking them to do this,” said Nicholson. “So whenever they reach out, they can tell the old friends or a family member, ‘I’m part of this experience and I am asked to do this.’”

Nicholson also developed a zero isolation scale to determine whether the six-week course reduced loneliness and isolation. According to the data, it not only reduced the feeling of loneliness, but it also improved participants’ self-confidence, he said.

Erica Michalowski, community outreach and education director at AARP, is working with Nicholson to train community members like those at senior centers to run the program.

“There are a number of activities, from conversations that pull things out in the past to find common ground or reminiscing about common themes,” said Michalowski.

She said the idea is to give program participants a toolkit that will prevent them from isolating themselves in the future.

“What we are trying to do, and what he has developed, is trying to see if during these six weeks people developed skills for them to take on beyond six weeks, to then practice it in reality in their life,” said Michalowski.

Ruth Ann Sylvester of Cheshire said that while isolation is a new normal for some, loneliness is nothing new for her.

“I am an extreme introvert even in normal times, so I thought this would be good for me,” said Sylvester, 74.

She took the class in September on Zoom, though she was afraid of reaching out to people who might not remember her. Not only did she learn to face that fear, but she also made new friends. 

“You know, we tend to put up walls against strangers or we tend to keep people at arm’s length, literally now. I really like these people that I’ve met,” said Sylvester. 

The program teaches older adults that despite physical distance protocols during the pandemic, they can still socially connect and build meaningful relationships.

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