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How a Massachusetts project is trying to fight the loneliness epidemic

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Loneliness and social isolation have major implications for our health. Health care providers and insurers are starting to pay more attention to these risks. And in Massachusetts, there is a program to help people make friends. Priyanka Dayal McCluskey of member station WBUR has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

PRIYANKA DAYAL MCCLUSKEY, BYLINE: The pool is a favorite hangout spot for Jason Silverman and his friend Melissa Mills. They sip slushies, and Silverman climbs the stairs to the water slide.

MELISSA MILLS: All right.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: He lands with a big splash.

MILLS: You're fast on that slide.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: Silverman has Down syndrome, and talking is sometimes difficult. But he has ways of communicating. He smiles, sighs, and sometimes leads Mills by the arm. They meet once a month and go to the gym in Framingham, Mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: They always start with a treadmill or bike.

MILLS: You're doing it. One minute. One minute and a half left.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: Then Mills helps Silverman order lunch at a cafe.

JASON SILVERMAN: Cheeseburger.

MILLS: Cheeseburger.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Cheeseburger?

MILLS: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: OK.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: This relationship started through a program called the Friendship Project. Its goal is to reduce loneliness and social isolation, especially for people with disabilities and mental health conditions who are more likely to feel lonely. And Mills says they hit it off right away.

MILLS: And we laugh and don't worry about anything when we're together. There's no stress. There's no pressure. We're just here to hang out.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: For Silverman, the outings are a break from the mornings he spends watching TV alone. His mom, Stephanie Lynch, says he seems happier.

STEPHANIE LYNCH: And it's just human. People need companionship. They need to feel part of something, and I think he really feels part of something when he goes to the gym.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: The Friendship Project is run by a human services agency called Advocates. Jeff Keilson is senior vice president.

JEFF KEILSON: If there's ways that we could really support people by connecting them with others, then we absolutely should do that.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: There are health and financial imperatives, too. A growing body of research shows when people are lonely, they're at higher risk of becoming sick with illnesses like heart disease, stroke and dementia. And Keilson says it's too early for data, but he hopes the program will reduce some hospital visits.

KEILSON: A lot of people, particularly with mental health conditions, use emergency rooms just to connect with people.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: Advocates is working with some health insurers to expand the initiative beyond people with disabilities and mental health conditions. A recent report from the U.S. surgeon general underscores the urgency of this work. It says loneliness is a national epidemic and raises the risk of premature death as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

DANIEL COX: Our social networks seem to be shrinking.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: Daniel Cox is senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His research finds Americans have fewer close friends than they used to. Cox says he's heartened to see more health care leaders focus on friendship.

COX: If the goal is to help people live longer, healthier lives, this is a pretty obvious intervention.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: Friendship can take different forms. For Michelle Somerville and Ida Rodriguez, it's a phone call every Tuesday. Here they are on one recent call.

IDA RODRIGUEZ: I can go anywhere and have this conversation with you. Right now, I'm parked at Taco Bell.

MICHELLE SOMERVILLE: (Laughter) You're at Taco Bell? Oh, my goodness. I like the burrito bowl.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: The pair met through Commonwealth Care Alliance, a Boston-based health insurer for seniors and people with significant medical needs. Rodriguez says her social life slowed down as she got older. The weekly check-ins remind her she has a friend. And Somerville says she likes hearing about the books Rodriguez is reading.

SOMERVILLE: I want someone to read to me, but I don't want to read myself. So it was a match made in heaven.

DAYAL MCCLUSKEY: The women have never met in person, but they look forward to these weekly chats, and their connection could be good for their health, too.

For NPR News, I'm Priyanka Dayal McCluskey in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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