Thursday, April 18, 2024

‘We were kindred spirits:’ As seniors battle a loneliness epidemic, the friendship of a 76 and 17-year-old shows connection has no limits

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Antoinette-Marie Williams gave Emmett Daniels a run for his money when they first met over a chess game two years ago. It has since led the two eagerly awaiting for the other’s presence, so they can be partners and play again. 

“The first day we played, we were kindred spirits,” she tells me as we hopped on a Zoom with Daniels, whom she hadn’t seen face-to-face in a few months. “I was a good opponent for him. I don’t think he expected it.” 

Daniels smirked, nodding in affirmation. “Our chess games matched perfectly,” he says. 

Williams, 76, and Daniels, 17, met when Daniels joined the DOROT program in high school, a New York organization fostering intergenerational support groups by pairing older adults with younger students for an array of activities from games and affinity groups to music events. It serves over 4,000 older adults every year, many of whom are homeless, live alone, or crave connection, according to the organization’s website. 

Williams and Daniels have since come together over numerous games of chess, and more importantly to both of them, good conversation outside of the program’s doors. 

Observing the two interact on camera makes you quickly forget the dynamics of age and the baseless assumption that people of different generations have little in common or that the elder is the only teacher in a relationship of this nature.

Before I even begin the interview, Daniels eagerly jumps in the conversation to share with Williams that he got accepted into college. Williams beams with excitement and deeds her congratulations. “I knew you could do it.” 

The topic quickly changes, and Daniels says he recently saw a video of Williams’ skydiving trip. 

“I’m doing it again next summer. You can join me … You know how dogs hang out of a car with the air blowing? That’s what it felt like for me, and it was like oh my god, just seeing the world, just being out there in the open 14,500 feet up and soaring.” We all laugh at the vivid image and admire Williams’ fearlessness—and how she says adventure has no age limit. 

DOROT, which launched in 1976 and translates to “generations” in Hebrew, aims to combat social isolation, and more directly, the loneliness epidemic in seniors. The organization’s intergenerational program pairs high schoolers with adults 65 and over for weekly programming both virtual and in-person in their New York location. 

Loneliness is a public health issue 

Loneliness and social isolation pose public health risks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Roughly one in four seniors over age 65 are socially isolated, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reports. Social isolation increases people’s risk for heart disease and dying earlier. It’s also associated with a 50% increased risk for dementia. LGBTQ+ people and immigrants experience loneliness at higher rates, according to research. 

“As a family doc and a primary care physician, but more so as a son, and a nephew, a caregiver, and a loved one to folks out there in my family and community, it’s plainly obvious to me that loneliness is driving a lot of hardship and illness,” Dr. Neil Patel, a primary care doctor and chief health officer at Patina, which works to deliver health care to those over 65, tells Fortune. The pandemic exacerbated the loneliness seniors already face. 

Losing loved ones, grappling with health changes and moving into more confined quarters can all lead aging adults to feel socially isolated at higher rates than their younger counterparts. 

“We want folks to age well, with dignity [and] with confidence in the manner that they want,” Patel says, who advocates for seeing seniors for their strengths and asking them what matters most to them as they age. 

He says people can wrongly assume seniors care most about their pain and health status, but Patel often finds in his work that maintaining fruitful social connections instill the greatest sense of pride and joy in aging adults’ lives. It’s no wonder, then, that Williams and Daniels bonded seamlessly over a game of chess, and found a deeper connection within one another. 

It was a connection they both craved. 

“Emmett is like a son to me. We talk about anything and everything. We talk about what’s going on in his life, and that’s rewarding for me because young people don’t interact with elders as much—only their parents and their teachers, and it’s usually a yes or no answer,” Williams says. “He really pours out his heart and lets me in.”

Loneliness isn’t just an issue for older adults 

Daniels feels the same way. The hustle of school life, and the pressures to perform well especially during the college application process were overwhelming, he says. In many ways, Williams provided a helpful supporter outside of the chaos, both as someone with years of experience under her belt to give advice, and as a genuine friend. He compares their time together to how he feels during Shabbat, the day of rest in the Jewish religion, which is a time he gets to slow down and cherish family. Williams makes him feel that same way.

“Speaking with Antoinette… It’s a breath of fresh air. I can just have normal conversations and talk about what she’s interested in or what I’m interested in,” he says. “It just feels like the perfect disconnect and the perfect recharge.” 

Experts say older adults deserve unique ways to integrate into society beyond the resources solely made for aging. 

“It is obvious that we need to prepare for a large increase in support networks in the future for this group of people,” says Stephen J. Shaw, a data scientist, and documentarian of Birthgap – Childless World, who studies loneliness worldwide, calling the reality a global humanitarian crisis. Simply placing people in nursing homes cannot be the best answer to providing that support. We need to look at more integrative societies where we share a mutual responsibility for taking care of the old, whether they have children or not.”

Before we all hang up, Daniels remembers one more story he wants to tell me. 

He recalls the last chess game the program was offering and how he hadn’t been able to go. He later made sure to reschedule and make it up to Williams. When he did, he says Williams told him some iteration of, “You made my day, you made my month, you made my year,” he says. 

“It made me feel like going beyond the program was justified, and there was meaning to it, and she appreciated it just as much as I.” His whole family knows those words, he says. 

Williams fondly remembers the same moment. 

“I was heartbroken when he couldn’t be there the last day for us to share chess together and conversation,” she says. 

“And I made it up,” Daniels added. Whether over a future skydiving trip or a casual game of chess in a coffee shop, Williams and Daniels show that intergenerational friendship is not only possible but an essential part of keeping people connected as they age. 

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