Social Isolation Can Be Fatal, But Central Virginia Offers a Remedy in Friendship Cafes | Community Idea Stations


FM Stream HD1

Social Isolation Can Be Fatal, But Central Virginia Offers a Remedy in Friendship Cafes

In Greater Richmond, about one in four older adults lives alone. Along with major life changes like losing a spouse or retiring, this can lead to social isolation and even premature death. But there are growing efforts to create engagement opportunities. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Find locations of Senior Connections Friendship Cafes, read about the Greater Richmond Age Wave, and find resources at Senior Navigator for aging well and recreational and educational programs.


Four days a week, this community room at Shiloh Baptist Church is full of games and laughter.

(Groups playing dominoes, laughter)

It’s one of 20 Friendship Cafes in Central Virginia, run by Senior Connections, the Capital Area Agency on Aging. At this location in Ashland, two groups slide dominoes across long tables, calling out numbers in rapid succession. A couple card games are going on too. In a few hours, they’ll share a warm meal.

Helen Gilliam: They can’t get rid of me!

Helen Gilliam started coming here in her 70s, she’s now 100. She says the Cafe keeps her happy.

Gilliam: And I like being happy! (laughs) I wake up in the morning happy, thinking about coming here, what am I going to do, what am I going to wear!

Mahalia Taylor: It keeps you going.

That’s 88-year-old Mahalia Taylor, born and raised in Ashland.

Taylor: ‘Cause if I didn’t come here I’d probably stay in the bed until about 10 or 11:00.
Gilliam: I definitely would, stay in the bed late. And I’m not able to do my housework and why stay there and look at what needs to be done, when you get out out there (laughs).

Taylor admits she didn’t want to come at first.

Taylor: I came in one day, they were just sitting around playing dominoes and I said this is not for me and I went back home.

But she gave it another try.

Taylor: Now I don’t want to stay home, ‘cause I live alone and this is an outlet for me to come here. I can make it the rest of the day, once I come here.

In Greater Richmond, about 40,000 adults aged 65 and older live alone. That’s a risk factor for social isolation, which VCU Professor of Gerontology Tracey Gendron says can be deadly.

Tracey Gendron: The stats tell us that social isolation is more dangerous than obesity, more dangerous than smoking probably 15 cigarettes a day. It has a systemic influence because it causes a lot of stress on our body and stress on our body wears us down, our immune systems down, increases inflammation and that can lead us to morbidity and lead us to mortality. So it actually has high consequences.

Gendron points out that social isolation can happen at any age. She adds that the amount of interaction people need varies.

Gendron: Maybe someone that's more introverted doesn't want X number of social hours, right? But maybe somebody that's extroverted does. So if you are feeling a lack, if you are feeling a disconnect, if you are feeling lonely, then that is indicative of social isolation.

Inadequate incomes and transportation can also fuel social isolation. Working with data from Senior Connections, Gendron’s research found that transitions and traumas are also risk factors.

Gendron: Let's say you're working and you have retired, you have now lost a social system, that's a transition. Let's say you've lost a spouse or a friend or you're moving from one neighborhood to another or from independent living into assisted living. All of these transitions could actually be triggers for the potential of social isolation.

Big life transitions led a number of people to Ashland’s Friendship Cafe. Richard Byrd was a caretaker for his wife until she passed away. Then he moved from Florida back to Virginia to live with his daughter’s family.

Richard Byrd: I enjoy coming here, you get a free meal everyday, you get to socialize, play dominoes, I really like it here.
Komp: So it’s made a big difference?
Byrd: Oh yeah, gets me out of the house four days a week and it means a lot to me to get out of the house.

Eighty-year-old Helen King recently returned to Friendship Cafe.

Helen King: It has helped me a lot because I didn’t want to go into a depression.

She first came about four years ago, but she had to stop when her husband’s Alzheimer’s worsened. After he passed, King said she found herself in an unhealthy cycle. Staying in bed, getting up to eat, going back to bed. After coming back to the Cafe, life’s changed for the better.

King: It’s fun, we can talk, we can joke and it means a lot to me to laugh because of what I’ve been through. So the laughter, the joking, the fun, the games and things, I really enjoy it. 

Anne Elizabeth Robinson: I’m Anne Elizabeth Robinson, I’m 100 years old.

Anne Elizabeth Robinson got a job straight out of high school and worked until she was 89 years old. Then she took care her sick brother, but after he passed, found herself alone in the house all day. Her son suggested she needed to get out.

Robinson: I felt alright but I would get lonely, you know, no one to talk to. So when I got out, I meet people each day. When I go in evening, I feel I’ve been out, I haven’t been home all day long. It’s good get out to mingle with people. And I enjoy it, I really love it up here. I miss a few days but I don’t like to miss a day if I can help it (laughs).

Cafe participants develop new relationships, but some go back generations. Robinson was friend’s with King’s mother.

King: She and my mother had known each other all their lives.

And there’s another connection. During segregation, when school officials denied funding for transportation to black schools, Robinson’s father Contee got involved.

Robinson: He was a really political man… and in those days, we did not have school buses and so many lived far from school, didn’t have transportation. So he put up, got a school bus, transport the children back and forth to school. And we lived in the home I lived in all my life until recent years, he built it, he was a carpenter.

In addition to the games, laughter, and fellowship, the Friendship Cafes bring in fitness instructors and artists for classes. They take field trips and go out to eat.

Missi Boyer: We always say we’re the best kept secret ‘til you need us.

Missi Boyer is Senior Connections Director of Nutrition and Wellness.

Boyer: It truly is a program that helps people overcome their isolation and loneliness.

In addition to Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield, she says there are locations in Powhatan, Charles City and New Kent. For eight of them, transportation is provided and there’s no cost.

Boyer: Each cafe has volunteers that have different duties that they do and one of our volunteer opportunities is to be a buddy, so when new folks come in they have a buddy who shows them around, tells them how the cafe works, introduces them to the other members, so it’s a little less like your first day of school (laughs).

Boyer says demand is growing for the Friendship Cafes, which receive the majority of funding from the federal Older Americans Act. She says there’s always concern that funding could be cut, so they’ve looked to non-profits and businesses to “adopt a cafe.”

Boyer: If I could open 10 more, I would because the need is so great.

The Friendship Cafes fit into a larger effort like the Greater Richmond Age Wave that’s seeking ways to promote health, engagement, financial stability and livability as Virginia’s older population grows. One of the next research projects for Gerontologist Tracey Gendron and her students is to look at the role infrastructure plays in keeping people connected.

Gendron: We're going to think a lot about transportation and how transportation impacts that. We're having urban planning and three gerontology classes partner this fall to do a service project to go out to neighborhoods and canvas and actually experience a day of running errands within those neighborhoods to see how easy or difficult it is to navigate the physical environment to help us continue to identify possible risk factors for isolation and on the flip side, opportunities for engagement.

Some of the biggest advocates for expanding engagement initiatives are those who have experienced them. 100-year-old Helen Gilliam wants to see the Friendship Cafes grow in Richmond, where about 10,000 people age 65 and over live alone.

Gilliam: I was thinking, I go to church in richmond and I’ve been thinking of asking them if they would open up a cafe because I think it’s wonderful for older people.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.