LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Being lonely is difficult for people of any age, but it can be especially harmful for seniors. Isolation for them is linked to shorter life spans and illness. Anna Gorman of Kaiser Health News reports from San Francisco on one effort to help them feel more connected.
ANNA GORMAN, BYLINE: Eighty-three-year-old Emil Girardi lives in Nob Hill just off the cable car line.
(SOUNDBITE OF CABLE CAR BELL)
GORMAN: His friend Shipra Narruhn is here to visit him. She hops on an antique elevator to the sixth floor. They have plans to eat lunch at their favorite Italian restaurant.
SHIPRA NARRUHN: Hi, Emil. How are you doing?
EMIL GIRARDI: Hi, Shipra.
NARRUHN: (Laughter) Good to see you. Big hug.
GORMAN: Shipra and Emil became friends about six years ago. They were paired by a group called Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly. It's designed to reduce loneliness by matching seniors with volunteers. Before meeting Shipra, who's 67, Emil spent years feeling trapped in his apartment.
GIRARDI: I didn't want to go out of the house. I was very comfortable going from my bedroom to the dining room. That was my day.
GORMAN: Researchers say that puts seniors at greater risk of memory loss, strokes and high blood pressure. It can be as bad for their health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Carla Perissinotto is a geriatrician at UC San Francisco.
CARLA PERISSINOTTO: What we know about loneliness is that if someone reports feeling lonely, they are more likely to lose their independence and they are at greater risk of dying.
GORMAN: Loneliness is often caused by life changes common in older adults - retirement, the loss of a spouse, children moving away.
PERISSINOTTO: The usual social connections we have in younger life end up changing as we get older.
GORMAN: There isn't much research on how to solve the problem, but Perissinotto says groups like Little Brothers can help seniors build new social connections. It's now in seven U.S. cities. San Francisco director Cathy Michalec says the home visits are key, especially for seniors who can't get around so well anymore.
CATHY MICHALEC: As you age, your mobility isn't the same. So those 50 stairs that you used to be able to go up and down all the time you can't go up and down all the time.
GORMAN: And that can lead to loneliness.
MICHALEC: Our elders just say, well, it's easier to stay in the house.
GORMAN: Emil spent most of his adult life mixing drinks at San Francisco's bars. His nickname was Tony Lasagna.
GIRARDI: Of the 32 years that I was a bartender, every one of those days was spent in a bar whether I was working or not.
GORMAN: He loved the city - everything about it.
GIRARDI: The atmosphere, the energy. And it's nonstop, 24 hours. I've done it.
GORMAN: But that changed after he had a stroke and collapsed on the sidewalk. The city's streets started to scare him. At first, Shipra said they would just visit at his apartment.
NARRUHN: I can tell from talking to him that he had a lot of interests.
GORMAN: She started bringing him music. He likes the ones he can snap his fingers to.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, SNAPPING)
GORMAN: Finally, Shipra convinced him to go out to lunch.
NARRUHN: After that, it was kind of fun for me to think of things to do with him. And I have very eclectic tastes. Anything I suggested, he was open for it.
GORMAN: Over time, his fear subsided, and so did his loneliness.
GIRARDI: After she took me out of the house, then I didn't want to stop.
GORMAN: This afternoon at the Italian restaurant, the waiters greet them by name.
NARRUHN: Do you see something on the specials that you're interested in?
GORMAN: Emil says he's not afraid of getting older anymore.
GIRARDI: I'm surrounded with love. I'm surrounded with snapping fingers (laughter).
GORMAN: And for Shipra, She says Emil is part of her family.
I'm Anna Gorman in San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA MER")
CHANTAL CHAMBERLAND: (Singing in French).
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.