Turning neighbors into friends

The Towers Foundation

With loneliness on the rise among older people, a New Haven foundation is building community in a bold new way.

Loneliness is the new smoking. Scores of studies have reported on the damaging effects of social isolation, particularly among older adults.

Researchers from Brigham Young University and other institutions compare the health impact of loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, calling it “more dangerous than obesity.”

There is a cure. The antidote to loneliness is building community and creating connections.

Innovative Solutions; Early Adopters

Case in point: Klaatch, an innovative program newly piloted by the Towers at Towers Lane with the support of The Towers Foundation of New Haven, Conn. The Towers provides affordable housing, assisted living arrangements and supportive services in this diverse community.

Klaatch (think coffee klatch) was the brainchild of Adam Greene, a “recovering investment banker” from Brooklyn, N.Y., whose father experienced chronic loneliness after the death of his wife.

Asking Residents What They Need

In a May 2019 survey, 38% of Towers residents reported feeling a sense of loneliness. Social isolation and loneliness are common challenges for older people, who may be living in a new environment away from longtime friends or adapting to mobility or transportation challenges.

Most Towers residents fit the profile Klaatch was designed for: At an average age of 86 and with an average annual income of $20,000, they come from diverse communities, live alone and often no longer drive. With limited funds and mobility, they lack access to private services to support the aging process.

A $10,000 mini-grant from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation’s Momentum Fund will help the Towers launch the Klaatch program — and “turn neighbors into friends.”

A First For New England

Klaatch is on a mission. The program follows a playbook that builds relationships through sharing and reciprocity while focusing on self-reflection and self-efficacy.

Klaatch uses a training and support model that trains coaches in active listening, group dynamics and empathy, matching coaches and participants by location and personality. The Klaatch program at The Towers will train four coaches, each of whom will lead a group of eight to 12 residents in weekly one-hour, face-to-face social interactions for 12 weeks.

What’s key is that the group is for and about the participants. The coach is there to enable the group to stay focused and to foster connections. Klaatch groups offer a safe place for older people to come together without judgment.

Gustave Keach-Longo, CEO and President of The Towers explains, “Through our partnership with Klaatch we are helping older people change the way they develop new connections with others. Throughout our lives, and especially as we age, we naturally want to know that we matter. We want to spend time with people who listen to our stories and who really know us, connecting in genuine ways. Our friends at Klaatch have taught us how to transform socialization for those at-risk of loneliness. We are grateful to Tufts Health Plan Foundation for the funding which make this partnership possible. This grant will enable us to improve the quality of people’s lives in and across our community.”

Pledging to use Klaatch to build a more age-friendly community within its residences and surrounding neighborhoods, The Towers applied for support in late September 2019. Just two months later, after a full vetting and recommendation by the Connecticut review committee, the Foundation awarded a Momentum Fund mini-grant, which provides a quick start for early-stage initiatives.

While Klaatch has proven successful on a national level, The Towers project is a first for New England. As a participating member of the Federated Jewish Community of Greater New Haven, the Towers project will promote the Klaatch program in 26 towns, including Shelton to the West, Cheshire to the North, Branford on the Southern Shoreline and Essex to the East.