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Social groups for seniors help combat isolation

By Chris Michlewicz

A social group that promotes healthy aging through connection hopes its members “enter as strangers” and “leave as friends.”

CircleTalk is a program designed to disrupt loneliness and isolation in the lives of older adults, and it has become a critical tool during a time when social isolation is more pronounced than ever. The small groups meet for one hour, once a week for 12 weeks and are composed of 8-12 participants ages 65 and older. The intent is to provide a participatory experience that’s guided by a trained CircleTalk leader, and to create new relationships.

Castle Pines resident Christina Dolan, who works as an inpatient behavioral health specialist for Centura Health, serves as a CircleTalk leader and said the program is supposed to be an in-person experience, but it has been adapted to reach people at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual meetings provide an opportunity for members to hear and share personal stories.

Dolan knows firsthand about seniors experiencing a lack of social interaction for almost all of the past year.

“My own parents are healthy, but they haven’t really been out of the house since March,” she said. “They’re very social people, and they have each other and family and a solid network, but what about people who live alone?”

There are a lot of meaningful conversations and plenty of laughs during the meetings. Each gathering usually follows a theme – everything from music to short stories – and the idea is to use those themes to do some self-discovery. CircleTalk was created in 2011 in part to help fight a “loneliness epidemic” among Colorado’s seniors, and although it’s designed for those over 65, the group won’t turn away anyone who is a few years shy of the suggested minimum age. Attendees also don’t have to be affiliated with Centura Health.

The largest obstacle in recruiting new members is getting past the initial barrier of apprehension that comes with joining a group of strangers. An open dialogue is key to connecting isolated seniors with the right services.

“A lot of people think that if they’re not hearing ‘I’m lonely’ that seniors are okay,” Dolan said. “Older populations can be more guarded with their feelings, and not willing to share that.”

A new south metro Denver group is being formed, with its first meeting scheduled for March 2. The group will meet at 9 a.m. every Tuesday on Zoom through late May. New groups will be created based on demand, Dolan said. Assistance is available for setting up and using Zoom.

Due to the increasing population of aging adults in America, the number of those feeling isolated is growing. The hope is that the friendships formed in the CircleTalk groups will build excitement and lead to a word-of-mouth campaign to help bring those numbers down.

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