There's a unique program at Judson Manor, a retirement community in Cleveland, Ohio, where several college graduate students live amid the senior residents. Room and board for the students is free, and in exchange, they perform concerts and recitals.
The relationship seems to be a successful one. In addition to the complimentary accommodations for the students, they also share art lessons and often eat together. Along with friendship and companionship, they might share tips on everything from relationships to technology. For the seniors, especially, it's turned out to be a way to fight loneliness.
And loneliness is a big deal. According to the American Psychological Association, loneliness and social isolation could be a greater threat to public health than obesity.
"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival," said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, in a statement. "Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly."
More than one-third of adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to AARP’s Loneliness Study. Being lonely, according to the study, often goes hand in hand with poor health. Those who rated their health as "excellent" were over half as likely (55 percent versus 25 percent) to be lonely than those who rated their health as "poor."
In two meta-analyses, researchers found that loneliness can increase the risk of early death.
"With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic,' " said Holt-Lunstad. "The challenge we face now is what can be done about it."
Looking for solutions
British Prime Mister Teresa May created the first "minister for loneliness" in mid-January. Loneliness is believed to affect 9 million people in the U.K.
"For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life," May said, in announcing the role. "I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones – people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with."
Because the position is still in its infancy, no particulars about the role have been released. According to the Telegraph, the government will publish a loneliness strategy later this year and has already started work on creating a fund to "encourage innovative and community-based solutions for the issue."
While not part of official programs, others are finding their own ways to combat loneliness. In London, 27-year-old student Alexandra Knox moved in with 95-year-old widow Florence Smith, reports the Daily Mail. Knox pays $277 a month to room with the Royal Air Force veteran.
Smith signed up with a roommate-matching service to avoid feeling lonely. They share chores, watch TV together and sometimes share takeout meals.
"I have told my friends about it, and some of them think it's a bit strange ... But the more they find out about it, the more they think it's a very good idea," Smith told the Daily Mail.
"Sharing your home is a marvelous idea. Loneliness is horrible. You can get bored to tears being by yourself."