Are Monroe County’s seniors lonely? Beth Berlin, Sandie Pierce and others are hoping to find out.
Berlin, director of the Monroe County Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), recently enrolled the county in a national pilot program on senior citizen loneliness.
“More and more studies are proving how deadly loneliness is to us. They are equating it to smoking packs of cigarettes. This is true for all ages, but especially older people,” Berlin said.
The project is being conducted by the Radical Innovation for Social Change (RISC), a small research lab based at the University of Chicago.
“We use an empirical approach to work on some of the toughest social problems,” April Feng, RISC senior analyst, said.
RISC is using methods from a similar loneliness project in the United Kingdom. Eventually, RISC wants to heat map the entire U.S., to see where seniors are the most lonely.
It’s starting its project with Monroe County.
“To my knowledge, nothing like this has been attempted here in the U.S. Ours is the only pilot in the U.S. We’re pumped up about that,” Berlin said. “We are very exciting to be piloting this effort. It’s very worthwhile and has the potential to be big. The ultimate goal is public funds and getting governments on board and using resources to help those people out.”
Berlin learned about the UK’s loneliness project while on a Zoom call with other Midwest RSVP directors. Feng was on the call and spoke about the UK’s project, in which British seniors were surveyed about their lives and a heat map was built to show the risk of loneliness across 32,844 neighborhoods in England. Eventually, the UK hired its first minister of loneliness.
Berlin was intrigued. She contacted Feng and signed up.
The project, “Heat Mapping Loneliness in Monroe County,” is now in the second stage.
“We want to determine if we can adequately predict the likelihood of loneliness based on factors such as age, health, housing, living arrangements, marital status, etc.,” Berlin said.
So far, RISC has created a heat map of senior loneliness for Monroe County using data from the American Community Survey for 2019.
Feng and her team looked at five variables from the census for Monroe County residents age 65 and older: divorced/separated, widowed, household size, self-reported self-care difficulty and disability.
The heat map was completed last October.
“We created a loneliness index for every zip code,” Feng said. “The data was down to the zip code level. It’s pretty detailed. In general, Monroe County is doing just fine. However, four specific zip stand out as having high risks of loneliness: 48131 (Dundee), 48157 (Luna Pier), 48161 and 48162 (Monroe).”
Now, Feng, Berlin and other Monroe County partners want to see if the heat map is correct by surveying Monroe County’s seniors.
“We’re not particularly sure of the accuracy of the map just yet. We are doing a survey to see if our predictions match up,” Feng said. “We want to see if there are other variables that need to be included. We think there’s a possibility that what predicts loneliness in the UK is different than in the U.S.”
Verifying the map’s accuracy is key.
“It has to be very accurate before you shift funding (to other zip codes),” Feng said. “We’re pretty rigorous about it.”
To verify, Monroe County’s senior popular must be surveyed.
To create the survey, Berlin partnered with others who serve area seniors, including Cheryl Conley from Memory Lane in Toledo; Stephanie Zorn Kasprzak from Monroe County Opportunity Program; Jeff McBee from Monroe County Community Planning & Engagement Department, and Pierce from the Monroe Center for Healthy Aging.
The partners came up an engagement survey with 21 multiple-choice questions. Questions ask seniors about their interactions, transportation, pets, use of social media and mental and emotional health. Seniors also are asked how far they live from a grocery store or church.
A section at the end asks for demographic information. Users also can request a call from RSVP to discuss engagement opportunities.
Although RISC used data from residents age 65 and older, the survey begins at 60, as a way to get more participants. Feng said this will not affect the accuracy of the results.
Berlin and others are now trying to distribute the survey to as many seniors as possible. The first ones just went out.
“We hope to get at least 2,000 back to get a valid sample,” Berlin said.
“We want to get as many surveys filled out as possible, so the sample is representative,” Feng said.
But finding a representative sample can be tricky.
“I can’t set up a booth at senior centers,” Berlin said, noting that people who go to centers are getting out and interacting and may not be as lonely as others.
She’s hoping to reach seniors who are homebound and/or receive home-delivered meals.
That could mean going door-to-door in the spring and even mailing out surveys to registered senior voters.
“It’s multiple phases. We want as accurate of a picture as possible. It will take as long as it takes,” Berlin said. “Mailing surveys is the last step, but this is the most costly. So far the project has been low in cost. We got a nice grant from the government.”
Berlin is hoping churches and other organizations that reach seniors can help her distribute surveys.
“Organizations that have contact with seniors, especially homebound seniors, those are the people we really need to hear from,” Berlin said. “We can use all the help possible in getting to any Monroe County resident, 60 and older.”
Once all the surveys are completed, RISC will analyze the numbers.
“We’ll run a regression on how lonely people feel. We’ll also measure other variables (not just what was used for the heat map),” Feng said. “It’s a very interesting exercise.”
From that, a revised heat map will be created.
Then, RISC plans to expand the study.
Monroe County’s variable may be used to create heat maps for other Midwest locations. But new surveys will be needed to find loneliness variables in other U.S. regions. Different weather, for example, might affect loneliness.
“It’s ambitious. We are using Monroe County as a testing point on this map. If accurate, we’ll use the same algorithm for every county in the U.S. We daydream of going to the surgeon general, who coined the term ‘loneliness epidemic.’ We want to see if anything on the national level can be done,” Feng said. “We’re super excited about the effort. It could translate into something really, really good.”
For more information or to help distribute surveys, call Berlin at (734) 241-0404.