Connector programs as a promising means of addressing social isolation and loneliness among older adults: A review of the evidence

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About the project

There are many reasons an older adult may become socially isolated or lonely. Experiencing either is the result of complex interactions among individual (micro), community (meso) and systemic (macro) factors. Not recognizing the impact that both meso- and macro-level factors have can result in overemphasizing individual factors. Consequently, the responsibility for addressing social isolation and loneliness should not be left to the individual but should be understood as a social challenge that requires a multilevel approach.

One promising approach to address social isolation and loneliness is the use of community connector programs. Community connector programs are overarching strategies that aim to provide support to those experiencing social isolation and loneliness by connecting them to existing interventions and community support services. Community connectors are individuals, involved in such programs, who enable the flow of information, resources and relationships across cultural, social and organization boundaries. In the case of social isolation and loneliness, community connectors facilitate connections between individuals and existing community supports and interventions.  

This project sought to understand how community connectors are defined in academic literature, the types of connector programs implemented and their implications for older adults experiencing social isolation and loneliness. An ecological framework was identified as a promising means of understanding the individual, community and systemic structures that can both facilitate and create challenges in ensuring one remains connected to the supports and relationships that exist around them.

Key findings

Following a review of the literature and analysis of international case studies of community connector programs, this project found the following:

  • There is a wide variety of community connector programs (e.g., door knocking initiatives, phone wellness check-ins, public library navigators, social prescribing).
  • Various terms have been used to label community connectors. They may be known as health champions, peer support workers, navigators, community health workers and more. Connector programs reach, understand and support older adults who are experiencing social isolation and loneliness in numerous ways.
  • Not only is there a range of terms, but community connectors can occupy various positions on a spectrum, ranging from being embedded in a public organization (e.g., health institution or library) to being situated within the community (e.g., taxi driver, church). Depending on their position, their reach and role may differ.
  • By far, social prescribing (SP) has received the most research attention. A defining characteristic of SP is its close orientation to health institutions. SP works from a social determinants of health perspective. SP originated as a means of enabling health providers, such as physicians, to address these broader determinants (e.g., financial planning, capacity to cook healthy foods, etc.). SP enables health providers to “prescribe” a cooking class or dance class to address health needs. The connector in this case may be the health care provider. Or they may refer the “patient” to someone whose role is to determine needs and connect them to appropriate resources.
  • Our research identified several useful typologies of SP programs—for instance Signposting, SP Light, SP Medium and SP Holistic. This typology, created by Richard Kimberlee, differentiates SP programs by the type of needs assessment performed. Signposting typically involves pointing the person to a service that targets an identified medical need, whereas SP Holistic involves an extended discussion with the person to identify needs and ensure they are connected to relevant organizations within the community. These needs may or may not be medically oriented. 

Policy implications

Community connector programs use existing resources to help address isolation and may benefit existing programs by providing new members. While social prescribing is the most studied form of connector program, these programs need not be located within health care institutions. They, therefore, may relieve some of the burden on health care institutions while providing an avenue for community groups (e.g., churches, private businesses) and public organizations (e.g., libraries) to address social isolation.

Public policies should identify existing connector programs, create knowledge hubs allowing promising practices to serve as sources of inspiration and guidance, and develop funding mechanisms to enable organizations to build or incorporate connector programs into their activities.

As connector programs are a relatively new strategy, more research is required to understand the various dimensions. For instance, they rely on conversations to identify needs. What sorts of support or training is helpful to enable connectors to facilitate productive conversations in these often-sensitive areas? Another challenge identified is the development of an up-to-date list of resources, organizations and supports to which connectors may direct socially isolated or lonely individuals. This is an area that could be supported through policy, along with means of access (e.g., transportation or communication technologies).

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Principal Researcher Albert Banerjee, NBHRF Research Chair in Community Health and Aging, Department of Gerontology, St. Thomas University:

The views expressed in this evidence brief are those of the authors and not those of SSHRC, Employment and Social Development Canada or the Government of Canada.

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