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Take on Today Podcast Episode 3

Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation, shares the importance of social connections and the causes and implications of isolation

Take on Today Podcast


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Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation, shares the importance of social connections and the causes and implications of isolation with Bob Edwards.

Bob Edwards: Hello. I’m Bob Edwards with an AARP Take on Today.

Joining me is Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation, to discuss the importance of social connections and the causes and implications of isolation.

[Interview begins]

Bob Edwards: Why did AARP Foundation decide to take on the issue of social isolation?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson: You know some years ago, as we were reframing the work of AARP Foundation, we began to look at interrelated social determinants, or risk areas for low-income older adults. And certainly social isolation rose to the fore. It was also at that time, which is 2010 to 2011, an area that wasn't as explored or talked about as it is today. So, there was a gap an opportunity for us to get out ahead of this topic and it's very relevant for our work. Now it's a main goal area.

We work to increase Economic Opportunity and social connectedness for low-income older adults.

Bob Edwards: What's the difference between social isolation and loneliness?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson: So glad you asked Bob, because we tend to use those words interchangeably and they definitely are connected. Loneliness and social isolation though different. I would say that I would want you to think of loneliness as more subjective. It's the way that you and I perceive our own situation. If we feel lonely and you can experience loneliness whether you're on your own or with a group of people.

It is subjective and social isolation is more objective. We can measure it. It's the size of your social network the, frequency or quality of your contact with it, it's whether or not you have access to resources within your community.

Bob Edwards: What are some of the causes of isolation?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson: I'm glad that you said some of the causes because there are multiple factors that lead to social isolation for any of us. Across the lifespan, or health span, and certainly more factors I would say for older adults. So, it could be lack of mobility, inability to leave one's home, illness, it could be vision or hearing loss,  an inability to connect with others as a result of that. We certainly have found in research as recent as last year, that for marginalized groups and those with lower income, there is a greater risk for social isolation.

Bob Edwards: Marginalized?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson: I would say think about LGBTQ populations, people of color, and those who are low-income.

Bob Edwards: What are the implications of isolation?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson: The health risks, I don't know if you've heard or read, and I want to say fortunately now, much more is being talked about and written about regarding isolation and loneliness.

But a study showed that sustained social isolation, has the health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

When you think about that statistic, I think it brings up the health impact and high relief for all of us. Social isolation over time leads to earlier death.

Bob Edwards: How is AARP Foundation combating social isolation?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson: In many, many ways. We are both funding and contributing to a growing body of research, which is so important to get at the root causes of social isolation. I would say we're pulling together thinkers and doers, funding research, sourcing or developing new ideas, and building bodies of evidence around solutions that may work.

We've built this wonderful online platform called, which is a way to share information. It has a very quick and easy assessment tool that an individual could take for herself or for someone else and an ability to put in one zip code and be immediately connected to resources.

Bob Edwards: How can those who are isolated or feeling lonely reconnect to community?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson: I'll give a few tips and I would say again head to

First of all, I want to address it and say: how can each of us help ourselves and also our neighbors? It can be so difficult when you are experiencing isolation to know what first steps to take, but certainly finding a volunteer opportunity is always one tip that I would give because volunteerism is shown, also through research, to improve our health and overall well-being and allows us to tap into a sense of mission or purpose in our lives.

Joining community activities and groups. We're learning a lot about the power of the arts and the improvement and social connection through, for example, community choirs. Heading to the YMCA. Or other community classes. Or opportunities learning how to use technology, because although technology can never be a substitute for the importance of human connection, if you're able to use FaceTime to remain connected with family or friends, or look for local opportunities, certainly that can help as well.

On the side of how we can help, I would say it is critically important for each of us to reflect on what it means to be a good neighbor and I mean really looking out for others around us. Thinking to stop and say hello and actually ask someone how they're doing and frankly listen to the response.

Ask someone to join you for a dinner if you're headed out for errands. You could knock on the door of a older neighbor and certainly you could pick up their groceries for them. But more importantly, offer for them to go along with you and have conversation with them as well.

Bob Edwards: How can technology help combat social isolation and what are the limits?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson: Bob, I'm glad that you asked it about both the pros and if not a con, the limitations. I always say that technology is growing fortunately for all of us exponentially in opportunities. But it's not a substitute for human connection. So, if someone is isolated a “hello” or a “hug.” Human contact really matters as well but we're harnessing the power of technology at the foundation to test out possible solutions. That can be as simple as helping older adults learn how to use, through some intergenerational classes or connections, a smartphone, iPad, FaceTime, email. Remaining in touch friends and loved ones.

We're also now testing out a pilot project called “Voice Buddy,” which is harnessing the use of voice controlled devices. Think Amazon's Alexa in this case. It's a way for older adults who are not agile with technology to leapfrog their learning. So, we're testing this out in senior housing centers and older adults.

We have volunteers and helpers who install Alexa and the feedback we're getting is really terrific. It started as a way for us to examine whether or not we could use voice technology to push out notifications about community events, social events, reminders for medical appointments and we had very good feedback. What we've found from some of the participants is that Amazon Alexa in this voice buddy pilot, it's almost as if it becomes a bit humanized in other words having the device and being able to ask questions and receive an immediate response, has a companionship-like quality to the pilot. Then we had feedback that an older resident took the Alexa and had a concert of Les Misérables and invited friends to join her in the lobby of the center. Where they could have tea and social connection with one another.

I think technology will become very important. We're also testing out with USC Center of Body Computing, United Health Group and Lyft ride hailing apps for older adults. Only about four percent of adults, older adults, really use ride hailing apps but we know that social isolation increases if you don't have connection to community resources. So, obviously affordable, accessible transportation.

 Study participants, over the course of three months, are able to use Lyft to get to their medical appointments, but also the grocery store or dinner out with a friend. Early results are positive for that as well.

Technology is definitely a tool that can enhance our ability to address this rapidly growing public health concern of social isolation.

Bob Edwards: Where can people go to get more information on social isolation?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson: I will always repeat, which is this great collaboration with the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, of Give An Hour, of the Gerontological Society of America, and of United Health Group, along with AARP Foundation.

Bob Edwards: Thank you so much.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson: Great to be with you.

[End of Interview, Music Playing]

Bob Edwards: Here’s what else you need to know this week.

The real scoundrels might be sitting at your next family gathering, looking as innocent as folks in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Even scarier: The closer the tie between perpetrator and victim, the greater the damage.

Family financial abuse doesn’t appear out of the blue.

It may be the result of long-festering family issues, or the perpetrator may be a friend or family member struggling with serious personal or financial issues.

Fraud is often tainted by emotion because you are more likely to trust a person you know.

Here’s one way to protect yourself and loved ones:

If a sibling manages your parent’s finances, be sure to give read-only access to their accounts to a trusted person and set up automatic alerts for unusual activity.

For more tips, stories and how to take action against family fraud, visit  

[Music Playing]

Bob Edwards: We’ve all seen it. And perhaps we’re guilty of it ourselves.

Checking in with our phones and other digital devices and thereby checking out.

Our inability to unplug is winning the battle for our attention span, something we may already find in diminishing supply as we age.

Americans, on average, touch their phones an astounding two thousand six hundred seventeen times a day.

In a recent experiment, ninety-four percent of Chicago pedestrians glued to their smart phones did not see cash hanging from a tree.

That’s proof, in a rather tangible and alarming way, that the lack of focus can be costly.

[Music Playing]

Bob Edwards: For more, visit AARP dot org slash podcast. Become a subscriber, and be sure to rate our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and other podcast apps.

Thanks for listening.  I’m Bob Edwards.

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