Flattening the Loneliness Curve

Illustration of the side of a building with views into five different windows.

By Eunice Lin Nichols ’97
Illustration by Gracia Lam

The need for intergenerational connection.

As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I grew up surrounded by a sprawling collection of aunties, uncles, grandmas and grandpas. Some of them were related to me. Most of them weren’t. The richness of this multi-generational community anchored my childhood in an expansive view of home, sparking an obsession with connecting the generations that has followed me throughout my whole career.

That work has never felt more threatened. Long before the coronavirus, we were already spiraling into a loneliness epidemic with health implications as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And while the assumption is that older people are the most socially isolated group in society, the generation reporting the greatest sense of isolation today is our youth.

I worry that physical distancing in response to the pandemic could become a deeply ingrained habit long after this crisis is over. I worry that as we engage in the critical, collective work required to flatten the Covid-19 curve, we will lose sight of the urgent need to simultaneously flatten the growing loneliness curve for young and old alike. I worry that so many more will die.

Every day, I counter that worry with wisdom gleaned from the elders who sustained me through an earlier crisis 20 years ago, when my world was rocked by 9/11. I was running a program that brought older adults into public schools to help kids read by third grade. My team of volunteers taught me (and countless children) that fear and hope, grief and joy, and brokenness and resilience exist side by side. The volunteers became extended family.

Today I see that extended family everywhere. I see it in organizations like The Cares Family, a community of 18,000 older and younger neighbors in the U.K., using telephone, mail and virtual visits to maintain connection between the generations. I see it in the city of San Francisco, as it partners with the intergenerational matching service Mon Ami to recruit 2,500 new volunteers to make grocery runs, offer tech support and even provide virtual concerts for isolated seniors.

I see it in the neighborhood groups springing up to check on those most vulnerable to the virus. In the music and dance choreographed by grandparents, parents and children over Zoom. In the many heroes, including retired doctors and nurses called back into service to care for those who are sick. Across geography and generations, this extended family reminds us how much we need each other.

An entire generation of young people will be shaped by Covid-19 and by who we become as a society when we emerge from this crisis. Did we see and call on the assets of both the old and the young? Did we express our humanity through daily acts of personal connection? Did we care for one another like extended family?

Every day, I’m filled with hope as I see older and younger generations banding together, many for the first time, to form a web of support around one another. These are the stories I will tell, the behaviors I will promote, the habits I plan to ingrain, so that they are the ones that will last long after this crisis is over.

Portrait of Eunice Nichols

Eunice Lin Nichols ’97 is vice president of Encore.org, a national nonprofit focused on intergenerational solutions to pressing social problems.

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