In recent years, reports and news articles have increasingly alerted us to the growing epidemic of social isolation in our nation. We also continue to find out just how damaging these conditions can be, with some studies even indicating that loneliness and isolation seem to correlate with cognitive decline, heart disease, and stroke.
Digging further into this national concern, we find that folks in rural communities, especially the elderly, have not escaped unscathed. A 2019 University of Minnesota study reported that while “…people in rural areas actually reported less social isolation and more social relationships than urban residents,” rural residents were, “…significantly more likely than metropolitan residents to say that they feel left out (one important measure of loneliness) often or some of the time.” That study also found that rural members of minority groups were more likely to suffer from loneliness.
While examining this issue, rural leaders may wonder how local governments can help cultivate connection within their communities. Well, we want to help with that exercise by highlighting a few examples of county initiatives that provide opportunities for folks to gather, develop relationships, and build community. These ideas can always be modified to fit your unique county so get creative!
Tell the Story: A common story or shared love of home can serve as an important tie for binding community members together. Why not host an inter-generational Storytime event for the entire family at a local library, church, or county office? Residents could share community history, folktales, or stories of their own childhood in the locality, allowing older and younger citizens, individuals and families to invest in one another and bond over their hometown.
Consider the example of Lake Clarke Shores, Florida, which hosted a My Town Storytime event to encourage interaction between local government officials and community children. In that specific case, adults read stories about small-town life, after which children built and decorated model homes to be displayed in the Town Hall. Elected leaders can learn more about the families and children they represent, while also offering an opportunity for folks to connect.
Facilitate Community: One library in Skokie, Illinois, hosts Baby Wednesdays, an opportunity for parents and their young children to socialize together on a weekly basis. Parents are given the opportunity to enjoy a cup of coffee with others in a similar stage of life while toddlers play together.
Could you develop a version of the Friendship Cafes found in Central Virginia by creating social and learning spaces for the elderly? While reviewing this idea, take a second to think of others who may need an opportunity to get out and engage with new faces. A friendship and support group for parents of children with intellectual challenges? What about a gardening or art class for stay-at-home moms or care-givers? A mentoring group for new dads? Could you create a version of the “Fix-It Clinics” found in Fairfax County, where volunteers help folks mend household items? Consider how local clubs, businesses, or faith groups could partner with you to make these groups a success.
Build the Community: The benefits of volunteerism to the county are obvious, but perhaps we overlook the benefits to the volunteer. One study found that, “Those who had volunteered at least 200 hours in the 12 months prior to baseline were less likely to develop hypertension”, and that, “Volunteering at least 200 hours was also associated with greater increases in psychological well-being and physical activity…” Volunteering can help folks in your community meet one another, bond over a common purpose, and establish connection, while boosting healthfulness. Understanding this, Loudoun County maintains a Volunteer Section on its website to help folks connect. How can your county partner with its citizens and local institutions to engage volunteers and meet community goals?
Please let us know if the examples we’ve shared today have been helpful to you, or if your county has an initiative that would fit in well with this post. We’d love to hear about it! We hope you’ll follow along as we continue to examine the issues facing rural communities.
VACo Contact: Angela Inglett