Pilot Project Proves That Seniors Are ‘Better Together’ - Innovative Program Battles Loneliness In Elders

by Alan Pollock
The first class of Chatham Better Together poses at their “graduation” last Friday. COURTESY PHOTO The first class of Chatham Better Together poses at their “graduation” last Friday. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – Married for 53 years, Debbie and Roger Hagen had been friends since childhood and were inseparable. When Roger died in 2022 at Christmastime, Debbie felt unmoored.

“I was devastated,” she said. “My social network was my husband.” She knew she was going to need some help “climbing out of that deep hole.”

Hagen noticed an article in The Chronicle announcing the start of a pilot program, Chatham Better Together, that aims to tackle the deep loneliness that can come when seniors are socially isolated. She called and found that the program was already maxed out with participants, but was put on the waiting list and soon got in.

“It has just been a fantastic program for me,” she said. “To me, the Better Together program has been a lifesaver and a life-changer.”

The year-long pilot program came to an end last week, and Chatham Community Services Director Leah LaCross couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

“I honestly can’t believe the results of this program,” she said. “One of the most gratifying parts of my two years here is watching this group grow and blossom. They have completely embraced each other.” The plan initially was that the first cohort of 30 seniors would complete the program last Friday after a fancy lunch together, receiving some parting gifts like matching fleece jackets. But the participants won’t have any of it.

“This cohort is begging to continue together, so that’s what’s going to happen,” LaCross said.

The program will now continue by adding new participants — provided that funds can be found to continue it.

Moved in part by stories of how local seniors were weathering the pandemic, the staff at the Center for Active Living began to brainstorm ideas for fighting social isolation.

“I said, this is a very critical issue here and I really want to do something. What if we brought people together here once a month for a year with the goal of helping them make friends with each other and do things they normally wouldn’t be doing on their own?” LaCross said. “I never expected it to take off the way it did.” Participants began building connections with one another even at the first meeting during ice-breaker exercises.

“There were two people who grew up on the same street off Cape Cod in the Boston area. They had no idea that they were neighbors,” she said. Another two gentlemen found out that they live next door to one another and didn’t know it. “They have been inseparable since,” LaCross said.

If there was any doubt about the success of the program, it disappeared at the annual luncheon held at Chatham Bars Inn for members of the police department’s reassurance program.

“All of my Better Together people were sitting together at that luncheon. That was my first indication” that the pilot program had worked, LaCross said.

For the first two sessions, one of the women in the program couldn’t speak without crying.

“She had lost her husband. And now she is commander in chief of everything around here. She’s volunteering,” LaCross said.

Social isolation isn’t just sad for seniors; it harms their physical and mental health and can lead to substance abuse and other problems. When it comes to the harm that loneliness does to the body of a senior, the research is conclusive.

“It has the same effects on their health as smoking does. It’s very detrimental,” LaCross said. “They have higher mortality rates and obviously higher depression rates. Being socially isolated is just about one of the worst things that can happen in your older age.” The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem.

“I’ve heard stories of some of the participants in this program that had spent two years in their home, and how that made them feel just completely depressed and alone,” LaCross said.

Chatham Better Together was really a simple fix. At its core, it’s a monthly lunch at the senior center, with healthy food provided by a local restaurant. There were a few simple field trips too, like backstage tours of the police station, fire station, Atwood House Museum and fish pier. There were speakers on journaling and floral design. There was also a trip to Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich and a whale watching expedition.

“The whale watch was exquisite,” Hagen said. “I’ll talk with anybody about my enthusiasm for this program.”

Before she retired, Hagen was the town nurse in Wellfleet, and paid visits on a number of senior citizens who were suffering the ill effects of social isolation.

“I know old people,” she said. “Now I am old people.”

Is it a waste of public money to support activities for seniors — even if it’s a simple game of cribbage? Anybody who thinks so “really has never been lonely, has never been alone,” Hagen said.

The pilot program was funded by a $10,400 state grant, which covered the cost of the lunches, field trips and transportation. Now it’s up to the town to continue paying to keep Better Together going. An anonymous donor contributed a $5,000 matching grant, and donations are being accepted to support the program. Contributions can be made payable to the town of Chatham with “Restricted to Chatham Better Together” written on the memo line, and sent to Leah LaCross at 193 Stony Hill Rd., Chatham, MA 02633.

Several times each week, a person will visit the Center for Active Living to tell the outreach staff that they’re completely alone, “and they want to see what we have to offer. To me that’s a huge step...asking for help is the biggest step there is. You never turn them away at that point,” LaCross said. Provided that the funds are available, the Better Together group will begin accepting new participants in September — and the need will still be there.

“The demand is high and it’s increasing all the time,” she said.