Isolation is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People experiencing loneliness are 50 percent more likely to die earlier than those with healthy social relationships. Data from the Health Resources & Services Administration shows more than 3.4 million people struggle with social isolation, loneliness, and living alone—and that was before the onset of COVID-19. More recent numbers show loneliness and social isolation have increased 20 to 30 percent, and emotional distress has tripled during the pandemic.
"Identifying and intervening in the loneliness among isolated seniors in our community has the potential to play a key role in reducing health inequalities," said June Ridgway, Director, Resource Center and AgeWell Cincinnati. Identifying at-risk seniors is why Jewish Family Service has created the K'vod Outreach Center. K’vod means honor, dignity, and respect. "It will work to raise awareness and educate the community of the negative impacts of isolation.” In addition to her role with AgeWell Cincinnati, Ridgway is overseeing this new program for JFS.
Alongside her is Rabbi Yair Walton, the K’vod Outreach Coordinator for Jewish Family Service, who was ordained this past May. "One of my multiple goals in life is to maximize people's human dignity," he said. "That's what really attracted me to this opportunity: the ability to help people by making them still feel connected to other human beings."
The K'vod Outreach Center will have a four-pronged approach to its service. The first will be community education. "Professionals in the field may see social isolation among older adults as a problem, but many in the community aren't aware of the extent of the situation," said Ridgway. "That's why we will be talking to Jewish communal professionals, family and friends of older adults, as well as older adults themselves, to help raise awareness of this serious problem."
The second prong will be to create a referral stream to help identify people in the Jewish community who are socially isolated. Walton said they will begin by reaching out to rabbis to identify who may be facing isolation in their congregation. "A lot of rabbis may see the isolation happening but don't have all the resources they need. Their plates are full. That's where I come in—I can be a release valve and resource. Being a part of Jewish Family Service, I have access to more resources than they do individually. I can help find someone home care services or a social worker."
Once individuals are identified, the third prong will be to connect with them about the outreach center. "They'll have a meeting with me," Walton explained, "to see where they are and what services they need. There will also be a survey to get an idea of who they are and what they want to get out of the program."
Walton said there will be several ways seniors can get involved—from learning technology from volunteers to teaching classes on anything they're passionate about. "I tell the older adults you still have so much to give to this world. You still have things to share. You're not done."
Once all of that is in place, the fourth prong will be to engage with volunteers. "It won't be just a one-way street where the volunteer does something for the senior; it will be a mutually beneficial relationship for both the senior and the volunteer."
"One of my goals in life is to maximize people's human dignity. That's what really attracted me to this opportunity: the ability to help people by making them still feel connected to other human beings."
—Rabbi Yair Walton, K’vod Outreach Coordinator at Jewish Family Service
Walton continued, "You can enhance your life by enhancing a senior's life. How's it going to make your life better? You're likely isolated too because of COVID restrictions, which are likely to continue for a while. So you're able to build a community, you can connect with peers, you can connect with seniors."
The idea for the K'vod Outreach Center began long before COVID-19 made more people aware of the dangers of social isolation. "In 2018 the Jewish community did a yearlong task force called Aging Services 2.0," said Ann Sutton Burke, Vice President of Client Services at Jewish Family Service. "From there, we started looking at this idea of social isolation among older adults."
Burke said at the end of 2019 the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati approached JFS with a grant opportunity to work in the area of social isolation. "Then the pandemic hit. We asked permission to put the program on hold while we dealt with COVID. Then as 2020 wrapped up, we started talking internally and decided that we can move forward with this program, just in a slightly different way."
Burke said after reworking their initial idea, they are ready to launch the program. "It looks slightly different, but the goals are still the same. We know something like 40% of the deaths due to COVID are among older adults. We know that even if people didn't have COVID, they suffered from increased social isolation, which was a huge problem before, and now has just exploded as an issue."
The K'vod Outreach Center is operated by Jewish Family Service but uses the infrastructure and talent of AgeWell Cincinnati. As Burke explained, "I don't think this project would be possible if AgeWell Cincinnati didn't exist. They have been very successful in their three years of operation—they created one number to call that will put you in contact with 68 service lines. They built the infrastructure, but it's still dependent on people picking up the phone and calling."
That's what will make the K'vod Outreach Center different. Instead of waiting for seniors to reach out to AgeWell Cincinnati, staff will contact the seniors directly. "We’re interested in those people who for some reason are not picking up the phone and calling,” said Burke. “We want them to have the fullest life from all aspects—socially, emotionally, physically. Because seniors still have a lot to give.”
Walton said he is excited to be doing rabbinic work for people who may or may not be connected to the Jewish community in other ways, but are feeling a need for more interactions. “They still have a need for a Jewish connection,” he said, “but they may need extra support to help them continue to attend services and congregational activities, because of mobility issues. I want to be the person who helps them continue their Jewish journey.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken social isolation from an abstract thought that not many people could relate to, and put it front and center on everyone’s minds. “People now have an idea,” Walton said, “of just how much they need each other. How much a hug means to another human, or even a high five. I think COVID has made isolation so much more real. It's no longer this amorphous thing for people. Our society now sees this as a real health issue, and treating it has measurable outcomes in people's ability to live longer.”
Looking ahead, Walton is hopeful that this program will get picked up nationally. “It's not just our community. Isolation is happening in every Jewish community; it's just very silent because of the nature of the population. I'd like to see the program grow to other cities. I'd like to see becoming more integrated with the congregations and Jewish organizations where it can be accessible to people.”
For Walton, and everyone involved in the outreach center, honor, dignity, and respect are the top priorities in every interaction they have. “The center’s name—K’vod—is inspired by our moral obligation for people who still want to be involved with the community.”