Loneliness and Social Isolation

Sociologists and public health officials are learning more and more about the ill-effects of social isolation.  In fact, we know today, that social isolation is a significant public health risk and that as many people die from isolation each year as from all smoke related diseases and illnesses.  Officials have recently said that isolation is as bad for us as smoking 2 packs of cigarettes per day!

In this same vein, we continue to look at and study loneliness as a by-product of isolation; and though they are related, isolation and loneliness do stand alone.  That is, one can be lonely in the midst of many connections.  Our recent sensitivity to suicide situations seem to validate this point.  Certainly many people who take their own life are not necessarily isolated, but are clearly alone with their demons.  Equally, you can be in an isolated situation, yet not feel lonely.  This is an experience I deal with every time I travel by myself.

These notions of social isolation and loneliness are important ones that we need to wrestle with as a community.  Clearly they (isolation and loneliness) have a toxic effect on us, and anyone reading this post has had some experience with them.  Further, there are people in all of our communities who are at greater risks of their throes. 

The antidote to loneliness and isolation is to build more social capital - easier said than done.  Still, if we, as a Community, want to lessen the effects of these experiences we have to better understand social capital.  How do people build friendships?  What are the steps and stages that are part of the social capital process? 

We know more and more about the process, and I have written extensively on it over the years, but for this blog there are 2 key points to think about.  One is that any relationship is a 2 way street - it takes actions on both sides.  The other is that all relationships start with some elements of similarity.  Think about it, every relationship in your life today can be tracked back to some component of similarity - it is the essence of social capital. 

So, as you reflect on this, consider doing your part.  If you are one of the lucky ones who has abundant social capital, recognize this - and then do your part to reach out, especially to those who hunger for connection.  You never know - your behavior might just save someone’s life!

Pugnaciousness - What Does It Mean to You

The notion of social capital first appeared in the literature in 1914 and since that time has been explored by academics as to its impact and benefit to society.  Most of the early studies were buried in the sociological literature until the concept was popularized by Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam in the mid-90's.  In fact, Putnam's book, Bowling Alone, which came out in 2000, began to spread the concept of social capital into many fields.

In preparation for a presentation I was to do, I pulled out my copy of Bowling Alone and reread the book this past weekend.  In this work, Putnam looks at the civic significance of relationships and how building social capital makes our communities better.  The book is a good read, and its relevance still has impact to this day, some 18 years later.

In one section of his book, Putnam writes about how relationships help people resolve problems, and become more tolerant and willing to understand each other.  One issue that really stood out to me was the fact that social capital reduces "pugnaciousness."  I remember when I first read the book looking up the concept of "pugnaciousness."  I wanted to get a better sense of what he meant.

Pugnaciousness is defined as having a quarrelsome or combative nature - to want to fight with people; and I have to believe that it is on the rise in the United States.  From the President, who seemingly wants to fight with everyone, and has made bullying fashionable, to the guy on the street who is willing to pull a gun on the person who took the parking space he was waiting for, pugnaciousness seems to be commonplace.

In Bowling Alone, Putnam suggests that when people come to know each other, their pugnaciousness (at least between them) goes down.  But if people remain distant or anonymous from each other, it is easier for them to end up in a fight.

Now I am not sure how much social capital lessen pugnaciousness, or, for those folks who have a pugnacious nature, can be softened by a relationship, but I have to believe that it helps.  More, I am convinced that although pugnaciousness (due to the cultural acceptance of influential, mean-spirited people), is on the rise in our society, it can be lessened through the power of relationships.  In essence, the more you come to know someone, the harder it is to be mean to them.

So take a minute now, to reflect on pugnaciousness.  Be aware of its toxic, spreadable nature, and do your best to not be drawn into the fray.  My mother used to tell me that fighting doesn't really solve problems.  The older I become, the smarter my parents seem to be.

What Makes Resilience

I had coffee the other morning with an old friend, a fellow disability advocate who has worked in the mental health field for years as a psychiatrist.  We were talking about how challenging it is to promote macro change, and especially attitudinal change in the greater community towards disability.  He then asked me if I was familiar with the "Resilient Cities" movement and if we want to make more of a macro impact, we should find ways to align here.

The Resilient Cities movement was initiated in 2013 by the Rockefeller Foundation with a worldwide goal of aligning forward thinking cities to broaden their agenda.  Over the next 4 years they invited cities to apply for funding to initiate an agenda for inclusion, openness, and acceptance.  In that time, 100 cities around the world were selected and began to meet, share, and compare ways to be more robust and inclusive.  Check out their website to see if your city is included - www.100resilientcities.org.  

Of these 100, 22 are from the USA and my hometown of Pittsburgh is in the mix (along with Atlanta, Boston, Berkeley, Boulder, Chicago, Dallas, El Paso, Miami, Honolulu, LA, Louisville, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, NYC, Norfolk, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Seattle, Tulsa, Washington, DC).  This means that these cities have key officials identified to promote resiliency in that community.

My friend Ken told me that many of these cities are focusing attention on infrastructure issues that look at things like water, roads, bridges, architecture, sewers, and the like.  Other cities, most notably Glasgow Scotland, has focused attention on people and relationships.  These cities feel that resilience is really about people and how they relate to address the needs of people in the city.

This relationship oriented agenda in resilience continues to show the power of social capital and how, at the end of the day, inclusion of any devalued or marginalized group, comes down to relationships between and among people.  In my work as an advocate, it suggests that the sooner we can promote relationships for folks we support, the sooner we can be assured that disability issues become a part of resiliency.

So if you are an advocate in any one of the aforementioned cities (for myCanadian and Australian friends, know that Toronto and Sydney are on the list), dig deeper and see how you, and the folks you serve, can become part of the resiliency conversation.  This is the stuff that will change a community.

Why Do You Stay At Your Job

At our agency, CLASS (www.classcommunity.org), we are always looking for ways to recruit people to work for us.  Our turnover rate for our Direct Support Professionals is consistent with human service industry standards, hovering at about 35%.  We always have openings for positions that provide direct support to the folks with disabilities that we serve, and struggle to fill them.

That is why this morning, while driving to work, I took interest in an NPR report regarding a study that looked closely at turnover and why people leave jobs, or are attracted to new ones.  Of course the conventional wisdom regarding turnover is always tied to salaries.  If you had to guess, it is a good bet to put money on salary as the key issue.

But this study found that money (salary) was not the primary factor in job turnover/acquisition.  Certainly money and salary are important and high on the list, but for the first time the primary factor rated was "culture and purpose" in a job.

Now organizational theorists have always identified culture and purpose as important, but never as important as salary in what attracts and keeps people in jobs.  They have felt that people will change jobs for even small increase and this is still probably true for many people.

Still, this notion of culture and purpose suggest that organizations, and especially nonprofit organizations, who do not have access to profit lines that can be applied to salaries, might do well to examine their cultures.  Certainly nonprofit organizations have important purposes to play in their communities, but the notion of culture offers some room to improve the turnover rate.

I know for me at CLASS, that the nurturing of our culture is job number one.  People want to work in an environment where they are valued and respected.  That they are treated with dignity and honor and that equality becomes an important variable.  Of course we need to raise salaries as much as we can, but compared to profit making firms, we are often limited by factors we can not control.

So my message with this blog is two-fold.  One is to prompt you to recommend CLASS to anyone you know who might be interested in direct support work.  At CLASS they can find purpose, and a culture that will care for them.  The other is for you to reflect on what keeps you at your current job.  Building a better culture is everyone's business. 

Time Taken To Build Relationships

So I was flying to Baltimore to participate in the DE Partners in Policymaking program and was fingering through the in-flight magazine.  I came upon an article titled; "It takes 50 hours to make a friend," and as I am always looking for information related to social capital, I read on.

It was a short teaser article summarizing an article by Dr. Jeffrey Hall that appeared in the "Journal of Social and Personal Relationships."  The short piece did not dive deeply into the article, but highlighted his key findings in looking at the time it takes to build a relationship.  Hall found that once you are acquainted with someone, it takes a good 50 hours to move that connection from acquaintance to "casual friend."  Then it takes an additional 90 hours to move from "casual friend" to "friend;" and finally a good 200+ hours to move from "friend" to "close friend."

Further, Hall found that the typical undergraduate student spends nearly a third of their waking hours with one close friend.  This nets to almost 6 hours/day invested in one close friend.

Now all of this is interesting to me as it suggests the importance of time in building meaningful friendships.  Of course we all know that time is critical, but for the advocate, helping people to build friendships we must understand the importance of regularity.  If we want to help people build social capital, they must make a regular commitment to be present with the folks they hope to befriend.

So instead of community outings, it would do us better to find places that meet on a regular basis and make sure that the person being supported can make the commitment to the group.  Then the real work begins, because connecting with others require that similarity emerges and that people can begin to share and compare that which they have in common.

Not fool proof, but building relationships takes time and we must be prepared to make the time if we want more friends.  So, the next time you are with your friends, think back to the time you have invested.  In these cases, time is more than money!

A Time to Scatter Stones; a Time to Gather Stones

I love the passage from Ecclesiastes 3, that was immortalized in song, “A Time for All Seasons.”  It juxtaposes important aspects in life and causes us to think about our own actions.

For me, I have been thinking for a while now about moving out of my current role at CLASS as CEO and on to other ventures.  To this end, I have decided to retire from my role as CEO effective later this fall and move into a "Special Advisory" role with our organization.  Now this is not an easy decision as I have been with CLASS since 1973, and have been the CEO since 1991.  This organization is part of my essence.

That is why I am happy to be moving into a supportive role; one that will allow me to take on special projects and offer a historical perspective as we march into the future.  Of course I will be doing this on a part-time basis as I want to have time to travel with Liz and my family and get in an occasional round of golf.

Still, there are other things I want to do.  Know that I plan to continue teaching, consulting, and speaking publicly about the importance of full and inclusive community, social capital, and cultural change.  There is still so much more for us to do, and as long as God shines on me I want to remain a player.  I also look forward to having more time to write.  I want to do a book about social capital in educational venues with my daughter, Gianna and her teaching colleague (and boyfriend) Marc; and continue to blog and offer short opinion pieces.

I also want to pay more attention to the Interdependence Network (www.buildingsocialcapital.org).  This international community of practice offers a framework for enhancing community and promoting macro change.  My colleagues Jeff Fromknecht, Jamie Curran, Patty Flaherty, Janet Williams, Joyce Steel, Rachel Drew, David Isitt, and others from around the world have helped to form a Template that can make a difference in our communities.  We need to move this along.

And of course, I want to spend more time with my grandson, Connor Allen (my son Dante and Heather's son), get to NYC to see my other son, Santino and Valentina as they continue to plan their wedding next year (in Mexico!), and spend winters with my daughter Gianna and Marc in Orlando.  Time is marching on, and I want to get in step.

So, for everything there is a season, and for me the time is now to step from my administrative role at CLASS, and make room for living.  I have loved every minute of my 45 years at CLASS, and it will always be another home for me; but there are other things that need attention, and I want to get at them.

Know that CLASS will begin to search for a new CEO, and I will be posting more information about this down the road.  In the meantime, I need to cut down some golf clubs - there is a future PGA player named Connor Condeluci, who is looking to learn the game, and Grampy is ready for the assignment!

Gatekeepers in Your Life

One key concept we use to help people understand the process of building more connections is to recognize the critical role of "gatekeepers" in our lives.  In more of an academic analysis the gatekeeper is someone already accepted in a community who offer their support, endorsement, or acceptance of the new-comer.  This juxtaposition between someone already valued and the new-comer creates a lift to this new person.  When people see, or hear someone they like or trust, endorse someone (or something) new, they are more prone to accept that new person (or thing) themselves.  It is sort of an endorsement and sociologists call this "social influence theory," and it is more powerful than you think.

What is even more powerful is that the endorsement of the gatekeeper has both an external as well as an internal impact.  That is, and as stated above, when people around the gatekeeper see their actions toward something they begin to become more accepting.  This is the external effect of social influence theory.  But more, there is an internal validation that the new-comer experiences that affects self-esteem, self-confidence, and feeling better about oneself.

In training's I do on this concept, I sometimes use an exercise that illustrates this internal impact.  After discussing the concept of the gatekeeper, I will ask people to take a minute and reflect on gatekeepers in their life. I ask them to write down their names and to jot down the experience they had with these gatekeepers.  Then I roam around the training room and ask volunteers to share a gatekeeper story.

Invariably, respondents offer these powerful, warm memories of these parents, teachers, coaches, relatives, ministers and the like, who were there for them, who propped them up, saw something in them that they couldn't see in themselves.  Powerful, loving and sometimes tearful reflections, that are incredibly validating.

So stop now, and think about the important gatekeepers who have impacted your life.  More, if you still have a relationship with this person stop now and reach out - call - go visit with this person - and tell them how much they influenced your life.

Never miss a moment to tell someone how important they are (or were) to you! 

Returning to Community

A couple years back, I was invited by my friend and colleague, Dr. Rory Cooper, to participate in a "Wounded Warrior" training program held at Walter Reed Army Hospital.  Dr. Cooper, a military veteran, and expert in disability issues, has aligned the amazing work he is doing at the University of Pittsburgh's Human Engineering Research Lab with the VA and participates regularly in military training programs.

Given my work in social capital, Dr. Cooper felt that this information would be vital to the wounded veteran who is leaving the service and re-connecting to the greater community.  Needless to say, when someone joins the military they become immersed in a military community that dominates their social capital network and, in a way, meets their every need.  Then, when the veteran decides to separate from their military "family," the challenge of community integration becomes a huge issue.  This is further exasperated when the veteran has been wounded.

The session we did at Walter Reed Army Hospital truly opened my eyes to this dilemma and how hard it can be to realign to civilian life when the mainstay of one's social capital is left behind.  Certainly many people experience this challenge when they must relocate for job or lifestyle reasons and finding new friends (social capital) becomes one of the most difficult issues.  For the returning veteran, this challenge can be monumental.

As a follow-up to our session, I was further invited by Dr. Cooper to write a chapter in his newest book, "Promoting Successful Integration," that explores some of the strategies and actions the veteran can do in building a new life in their community.  The chapter I did with my colleague, Melva Gooden-Ledbetter is titled, "Community/Peer Support and Service."  The book was just released by the Office of the Surgeon General, Falls Church, VA, and we are incredibly proud to have been included.

There is no question that the power and potency of social capital in helping people build a more successful life applies to all aspects of experience.

Keys to a Better Life

I just finished reading my recent AARP Bulletin and found an article that really resonated with the work we have been doing on social capital, relationships and community building.  It was penned by Jo Ann Jenkins, the CEO of AARP and summarized the keys to better health.

The 2 key ingredients reviewed are "friendship and purpose."  Here are some of the things reported:

People with viable social connections are more likely to get plenty of sleep, eat healthier, have peace of mind and less stress.  They state that loneliness is the new smoking and being lonely can shave 8 years off life expectancy.  The mortality risk for loneliness is greater than that of obesity and that social isolation of older adults is associated with an estimated $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually.

Social isolation is such a problem around the world, that foundations have identified it as the key issue today.  The UK has appointed a "Minister of Loneliness" with the challenge of measuring the impact of loneliness and to find strategies in Great Britan that can deal with it.  Similarly, CareMore, a health care provider in California has hired a "Chief Togetherness Officer" to directly address loneliness and its impact on health.

The other variable, "purpose," is equally impactful.  A sense of purpose for many people is more important than money, and it has been associated with a variety of health issues.  Studies have found that people with a sense of purpose get better sleep, have fewer hospital stays, and see their physician less.  They eat healthier, tend to exercise more, and avoid drugs and alcohol. 

Further, optimism and purpose can add 7.5 years to your life, and help you heal more quickly, and show significantly less cardiovascular issues.  Without question, lifestyle and choices we make can have a huge impact on creating a better life.

Think about this and do your best to nurture your relationships and the directions you have chosen.  Friendships (social capital) and purpose are vital elements to life success.  If you need to find a purpose in your life, come join us at CLASS, as we work to build a community where everyone belongs!

Change, Though Slow, Can Happen

Years ago, I recounted an experience I had in my book, "Interdependence: The Route to Community" (1991).  It related to a community outing of 6 people with disabilities I observed at a local McDonalds in 1989.  As the story went, I had taken my children to McDonalds and while we were sitting with our meals, an obvious group of folks with disabilities, probably from a local group home, made their way into McDonalds.  They had 2 staff that were overseeing them and it was clear who was whom.  The folks with disabilities were dressed in ways that were culturally inappropriate, either too large, or small, or clearly mismatched clothing.  

The staff sat these folks down, not far from where we were sitting and proceeded to get their food orders.  Then, one staff member went to fill the orders as the other kept watch over the "clients."  It was all so odd and out of place and I noticed other people noticing.  After they finished their meal they were marched out to a large van in the parking lot with writing on the door that spoke of the agency that served them.  I remember there were balloons and a smiley face in the logo.

I recounted this story in my book as an example of how community outings can message some wrong things, especially when the goals for such outings is to promote community inclusion.  I subsequently spoke often of this experience in workshops to suggest alternate strategies and approaches to inclusion and full community participation.  As change agents we need to understand the powerful external message of our work.

Interestingly enough just the other day, my wife and I went to our local Cracker Barrel for breakfast and after our meal, I sat on porch rocker while she shopped a bit in their store.  While sitting in the sun, observing people come and go, I noticed a nicely appointed SUV pull into a handicap spot.  There were 3 folks in the vehicle, and I thought nothing of it.  Then slowly I noticed that the driver got out to help the other 2 passengers.  They were all nicely dressed and headed into the restaurant.  A few minutes later, another SUV pulled into the lot, and as these 3 folks got out, I began to realize that these must be folks who receive residential supports, out for morning breakfast.

I couldn't help thinking back to that experience in 1989 at the McDonalds to the experience I was observing right now.  The differences were stark - no large van with signage, appropriate dress, folks in small increments where i couldn't tell staff from folks being supported.  All of it so typical and blended into the community norms.

I smiled a bit and felt some sense of satisfaction that the messages of community inclusion can, in fact, happen.  I don't know if these folks were even part of a service system, or if the van drivers were staff, or just friends enjoying a morning out.  I was just happy that it was happening, and that no one noticed.

On Fatherhood

We are ready to celebrate Fathers Day, and although I understand the commercial focus of these type of holidays, they do allow us to reflect on the critical role fathers play in helping mold their children into productive men and women.  Of course, for most of us who are fathers, the template we use in this challenge is often tied to the relationship we had with our own fathers; and even if that experience was not the best, it was probably instructive.

I count myself among the lucky men who had a father that was a guide, mentor, and, in a way, my best friend. He wasn't perfect, i don't know any father who is, but his values and the lessons he tried to help me my bother and sisters understand were steady and predictable. Observing him, as a child, teenager, and then man myself could not have created a better framework for me when I became a father myself.  As I summarize his temperament and style there were 3 major themes that emerge.

One was a sense of gentleness with us as kids.  Of course he could lose his temper, but he always was able to walk away, collect himself, and then re-engage.  He never bullied us, or anyone else for that matter and would use his faith oriented adage, blessed are the peacemakers.  This gentleness extended in many ways and I never heard him use a cross word with our mother, though times she could be provocative.

He was a good listener - not perfect - but would get us to talk about the issues that were creating barriers to our success.  In his listening he would temper what he was hearing with the important values he wanted us to understand.  On occasion his Italian temper would get in the way of the deeper listening, but even these experiences taught us how emotions can influence how you are seeing something.

His work ethic was strong and he felt that we kids should carry some of the economic weight. He was a newspaper man, so from my earliest memories I delivered papers in our neighborhood.  I kept that route into high school then passed it on to my brother when I got a job setting pins at the local bowing alley.  I worked in a men's store, and then started playing music in high school.  All of these efforts allowed me to save money for college and ultimately get my degree without any loans. This work ethic track set a tone that continues for me to this day.

So, if you are a father, think about the lessons that are important to you.  If they track back to your dad, and you are fortunate enough to still have him in your life, thank him for the time and energy he expended to help you become a better person yourself.  If you didn't gather lessons from your dad, think about the things you can do now to make you a better father.  Either way recognize and appreciate the amazing opportunity you have now before you.

Notes From The Hospital

Folks in my primary social capital circle know that over the past4  months I have been hospitalized with 2 episodes of pancreatitis.  It is a sever condition where the pancreas, due to a blockage, becomes inflamed and dysfunctional.  It comes on swiftly and the pain is unbearable.  Once diagnosed the treatment approach is hospital admission and the complete shutdown of the digestive system, and pain management.  My 2 recent admissions (early March and late May) tracked the same and, believe me, it is a condition you wouldn't wish on your worse enemy.

Now this blog is dedicated to looking at social capital and relationship issues, not a medical reflection, but their is a huge connection between social capital and acute medical situations that can not be denied.  With pancreatitis, the pain is so outrageous that it is virtually impossible to manage without a social support system.  I couldn't imagine doing what was required alone.

Still, laying in a hospital room, sometimes in intense pain, sometimes under the influence of pain medication, it is amazing the insights you have and the reflections that follow.  To this end, here are some lessons learned.

1. Recognize that when pain medications are necessary there are some options that might work better for your system.  When they gave me morphine, I immediately became nauseated and threw up during the application process.  Of course, throwing up comes with pancreatitis, but if you can lessen this that is one less pain issue.  What I discovered is that when they shifted me to dilaudid, I had limited nauseous reactions.  Further, if the meds are applied slowly into the IV the results adjust better to the system.

2.  When urinating into a bottle, especially from a hospital bed it is best to stand up (if possible), shift to your side (if you are mobile enough).  Try to avoid peeing in a bottle while on your back.

3.  As bad as you feel, and as insensitive that some staff can be (especially the overnight shift), the best policy is to be positive, take an interest in them and say please and thank you. It will serve you down the road.

4.  Know that you can address the beeping of an IV monitor by hitting the reset button.  Now this does not work all the time, and if you need a change on an IV bottle the beeping will continue.  Still, these machines, and their infernal dysfunction, will make you crazy.  The staff will blame your IV position and how you are laying on it.

5.  Be prepared to not get much sleep.  The pain meds will help make you drowsy, but just when you drift off, the aide will be in to take your vitals. In fact, the drawing of blood, always a deterrent to sleep, will happen in the middle of the night so that results are available for the docs when they come in for rounds.  Forewarned is forearmed.

6.  With digestive issues like pancreatitis, one major marker, that stand between the hospital and your dischage home, is having a bowel movement, and the passing of gas.  Now, with the digestive system being shut down and taking nothing by mouth for 4 days, it takes a while for this process to kick in.  Be patient.

I hope you never need any of these lessons and tips, but as one who is driven to observe, and try to make sense of experiences, i needed to share.  As we all get older the more we will be destined for system breakdown, these kinds of experiences may be of help.  Tread boldly!

Have You Explored Your Values

Each summer session I teach a class in the School of Health and Rehab Science at Pitt on Human Relations.  The course is actually titled, "Human Relations in the Health Care Environment," but I make the course about human relations in a general sense.  I don't think that our ways of relating should change that much regardless of the setting and the students seem to be good with this approach.

In the first segment of the course we focus in on knowing ourselves better and I use a variety of exercises and activities designed to reveal a bit more about us.  One such exercise is a "values clarification" activity designed to push the respondent to think about the important things they value in life (and in others).  I found this exercise in a great book by Peter Senge titled, "The Dance of Change."

The exercise lists out 60 unique values in 3 columns and prompts the respondent to check off their top 10 most important items.  Then it pushes us to whittle those down to 5; then 3, and finally to identify the top value.  It is a hard exercise because the values all seem important.  Of course, this blog is too short to list all 60 items, but here is a sample:  Achievement, Affection, Close Relationships, Democracy, Freedom, Friendship, Having a Family, Helping Society, Honesty, Knowledge, Loyalty, Religion, Self-respect, Truth, Wisdom and the like - 60 in total!

Now I don't know the last time you thought about the values you hold dear, but I know that the students (all juniors and seniors) tell me that they don't routinely reflect on values.  Although our values are essential to important relationships we don't think deeply about them.

After the students finish the exercise, I compile the collective items and have been doing this over the last 10 years or so and just recently looked and compared their responses and found some interesting trends.  Now, I don't know what this actually reveals about the values of college students, but let me share the collective top 3 values over the last 5 years:

2014 - 1. Achievement, 2. Personal Development, 3. Affection

2015 - 1. Affection, 2. Close Relationships, 3. Self-respect

2016 - 1. Having a Family, 2. Affection, 3. Religion

2017 - 1. Honesty, 2. Having a Family, 3. Affection

2018 - 1. Having a Family, 2. Quality Relationships, 3. Helping Others

So, the next time you have a spare minute, think about the things you value.  More, work toward making these values happen in your life.

Thoughts to Ponder

Most folks who know my work or have been involved in training or lectures I have done, know that I am a lover of quotes.  I use them often when I share concepts and so I am always on the prowl for a new quote that might help express the core of the topic.  Of course, since many of my sessions are on social capital and relationships, there are many quotes that are appropriate.  To this end, I wanted to share some thoughts for you to ponder as you think about the social capital in your life.

"Time is too slow for those who wait - too swift for those who fear - too long for those who grieve - too short for those who rejoice.  But for those who love, time is eternity."  Henry Van Dyke.

"You are the music, while the music lasts"  T.S. Elliott

"Knowing is not enough; we must apply.  Willing is not enough; we must do."  J.W. vonGoethe

"To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved; and therefore unlovable.  Loneliness is a taste of death."   Jean Vanier

"In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out.  It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being.  We should all be thankful for those people who re-kindle our inner spirit."   Albert Schweitzer

"In the end we are all separate.  Our stories, no matter how similar, come to a fork and diverge.  We are drawn to each other because of our similarities; but it is our difference we must learn to respect."   J.W. vonGoethe

"From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.  And from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded."   Luke 12:48

"Of all the things which wisdom provides to make us entirely happy, much of the greatest is the possession of friendship."   Epicurus

"There is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more."   Robert Hensel

Thanks for thinking about, and working towards a community where each belongs.  A successful society needs everyone.

More Data on Social Isolation

Our Social Capital/Social Justice Conversation Group met this morning and as is typical for our monthly discussions examined the powerful and negative effects caused by social isolation.  One of our members shared a recent report done by Cigna that looked at the driving behaviors associated with social isolation.  It is a new and fresh analysis culled from interviews with 20,000 Americans.

You can find the results with a google search but wanted to share some of the high points with you in this blog.  First and foremost is that social isolation is now deemed a public health crisis and is on the rise.  They summarize that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it more dangerous than obesity.  In fact, their study, which used the UCLA Loneliness Scale and was conducted online, found that most Americans are considered lonely.  The study revealed:

*  Generation Z (adults 18-22) and Millennials (adults 23-37) are lonelier and claim to be in worse health than older generations.

*  Social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness

*  Students have higher loneliness scores than retirees

*  There was no major difference between men and women and no major difference between races when it cam to average loneliness scores.

*  Individuals who are less lonely are more likely to have regular in-person interactions, are in good overall physical and mental health, have found a balance in their daily activities, and are employed

*  When asked how often they feel like no one knows them well, more than half of the respondents (54%) surveyed said they feel that way always or sometimes

*  Just under half of all those surveyed report sometimes or always feeling alone (46%) and/or feeling left out (47%)

*  At least two in five surveyed sometimes or always feel as though they lack companionship (43%), that their relationships are not meaningful (43%), that they are isolated from others (43%), and/or that they are no longer close to anyone (39%).

These are powerful findings, especially in the light of a world where most of us have hundreds of friends or followers on Facebook or Twitter.  So, how lonely or isolated are you - and more, what can you do about it?

Memories and Relationships

I was driving to work the other day and heard a clip from the old tune - "Thanks for the Memories," the Bob Hope tune that won an Academy Award in 1938.  Hope used it as his signature song and closed all of his shows with the tune.  The song created a brain worm and I found myself singing or humming the melody all day long.

Later that day, still haunted by the tune, I looked it up and listened to the lyrics.  Itis an ode to a broken love affair and speaks to the little things that remind us of those important people in our lives.  This song got me to thinking about the important memories in our lives, and the encounters that we easily recall when we hear a song, or see an image that baits our memory.

As I continued to ponder this, I recalled an Anthropology class I had taken in graduate school long ago.  I remembered the professor talking about the elements that constitute and frame a culture.  She talked about rituals, patterns, jargon and memory as key elements of a regular community.

This notion of memory, it seems, is a sort of "glue" of social capital.  Even though people go in and out of our lives, the memories we form together etch deep.  This might be why we keep and cherish scrap books, or that folks keep thousands of pictures on their phones.  In a way we don't want to forget the experiential fall out of our social capital.

Reminiscing brings us back to the "good old days."  Photos, songs, and images bait this reminiscing.  So the next time you are with friends remember that today is the "good old days," and that the experiences we create, in a way, frame our humanity.

Strength in Differences?

I am doing some research for an article I am writing and came upon an interesting quote from Ari DiFranco.  It states:

"I know there is strength in the differences between us; I know there is comfort where we overlap."

This got me thinking more about similarities and differences.  Years ago (1995) I wrote a book titled, "Beyond Difference."  In this work I postulated that our differences push us apart - that this action is bore from our defense mechanism of caution, or even flight from that which we don't see as similar or do not understand.  I argue in the book that our differences create a wedge between us and the only way we can move forward in relationships is to find more similarity and just let our differences be.

Then I considered this quote from DiFranco and it challenged me to think deeper on this notion of differences.  I get the "comfort in overlap" as our similarities do create bridges in connection.  They give us something to talk about and to build upon. 

But in the quote, he also suggests that there is strength in our differences - a position that I had not considered.  It caused me to go a bit deeper on this issue.  What is it about difference that might promote strength?  Is it in the fact that the differences might cause us to think deeper - or to put ourselves in the different person's shoes?  Or, does it suggest that the difference makes us feel superior, and in a way, stronger (or better) than the different person.  And in all this, how does the process create strength?

I am still pondering this notion, but I wondered what you might think.  Is there strength in difference?  When we encounter people who are different from us does this make us feel stronger - and if so, how?

The Univerality of Social Capital

I have been a student of social capital theory for many years.  After being exposed to the concept in the early-90's, I have been looking at its application as it relates to folks with disabilities.  We know that many people with disabilities have marginally less social connections and over the years have been trying to understand why this is and more...how to change this reality.

I know in my own family experience growing up with a cousin who had downs syndrome, as well as supporting my dad after his diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease, that limited relationships, as well as the loss of relationships created real vacuums for them.  And in my work with CLASS (formerly UCP) these similar relationship voids were (and are) constant and present.

As I began to write and speak about the importance of relationships for people with disabilities, I began to find that this challenge didn't just apply to them.  I started to frame the concept more from a personal focus and asked audiences to think about the relationships in their own lives.  This not only helped people appreciate the impact of the concept, but also see its relevance more broadly.

Now more and more groups, interested in a variety of community concepts, are starting to appreciate the tie in of social capital and better outcomes or impact to them.  Community action groups, mental health advocates, gerontologists, educators, politicians, criminal justice advocates, children's programs, and on and on, have begun to open their thinking on the impact of relationships to their agenda. 

Certainly the key to better outcomes, regardless of the emanation of issues, is found in people connecting with people and the building of social capital.  Indeed, everyday people, who might not be struggling with any particular issue can find their lives enhanced through the outcomes of social capital.  It is a universal concept that we should all strive to get better at in our course of lives.  

What Makes an Expert

I just returned from some presentations I did in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and at the conference I was introduced as an "expert" in the concept of social capital.  I did my presentation but later reflected on the introduction and it caused me to think about what makes an expert.  Indeed, I have done advanced study on the notion of community and social capital, as well as having garnered actual experience in the work we do at CLASS - but does this make me an expert in the subject?

Certainly we are exposed to experts all the time; we see and hear them in the media speaking about things they are supposed to know more about than the average person.  When we go to conferences or events, experts are on the program to discuss subjects in which they have some expertise.  So, what makes someone an expert?

To me, expertise is a combination of a number of factors.  Of course, we expect that an expert has some advanced knowledge, study, or familiarity with the topic.  I want them to have some formal, rigorous efforts in the topic via study, research, or deep exposure.  I would also want them to have some direct experience with the topic and not just understand it academically, but to have wrestled with it in application.  Last, I hope the expert has some broader wisdom and can understand the direct application of the subject in everyday life.

In this day of social media and open access to other people, we really need to be cautious about who we believe.  Thinking about a topic, and then putting trust in what the "expert" says about it can make any life application easier, or harder; so we should really think about the credentials the expert has in the subject. 

So what do you think - what makes an expert in your opinion?  Who do you tend to believe on subjects, and why?

Family Engagement Patterns

One of the things I love about the work we do is the opportunity to gather evidence related to our field.  Recently CLASS partnered with our sister organization, Mamre, in Brisbane Australia, along with our good friends from Chatham University in Pittsburgh to explore family engagement patterns.  We were particularly interested in looking at the differences in family engagement between families who have children with disability labels compared to families who have children without disabilities.

So, we identified 50 families in Pittsburgh, and 50 in Brisbane, 25 of which had children with disabilities, and 25 whose children did not have disabilities in both cities.  We then proceeded to conduct a community engagement survey, developed at Harvard University, with these 100 families.  This survey was designed by Robert Putnam, a renowned sociologist and prolific researcher on social capital and community engagement.

We recently completed the research and are now in the process of examining the data for trends and findings.  In the early analysis we are discovering what seems to be some interesting cultural and disability related trends.  Of course we plan to write this up and share it more widely, but here are some aspects of interest:

*  In both the US and Australia, children without disabilities are much more likely than children with disabilities to have friends who do not have disabilities, but there is no significant difference in whether the two groups have friends with disabilities.

*  Families in Australia who have a child with a disability are much less likely to go to a friends home or community events compared to other groups.

*  US families were more likely than Australian families to go out to dinner and Australian families who have children with disabilities were the least likely (of all 4 cohorts) to go out to dinner.

*  Australian families who have a child with a disability appear to feel most lonely in their neighborhood compared to all other groups.

*  In both the US and Australia, children with disabilities tend to not see their school friends outside of school as often as children who do not have disabilities.

These are but a few of the findings, but we think this kind of information is important for a number of reasons.  We know that community engagement is a key step in building social capital, yet for most of us, we rarely get formal exposure to engagement protocols.  Rather, we learn how to engage by observing others engage.  If this is the case, and the families who have children with disabilities tend to engage less, then their children get less chances to observe engagement protocols - and, in turn, may have a more difficult time engaging at all.  This, in fact, may be one of the reasons why adults with disabilities, on average, tend to have less social capital than their non-disabled peers.

There is so much more we need to learn about community engagement and social capital, but studies like the family engagement exploration we are doing offer a good start.  Once our analysis is complete we will report the findings and I will be sure to share key aspects in this blog.