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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended social interaction, loneliness was a serious issue for older adults. According to a 2019 report from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, 43 percent of seniors report feeling lonely on a regular basis, and 20 percent of all Americans say they feel socially isolated.
The Concordium, a nonprofit social enterprise founded by two Harvard students, seeks to eradicate that “loneliness epidemic.”
Using technology to foster intergenerational relationships, the videoconferencing platform matches older adults to younger adults based on common experiences and shared interests. It provides a simple, web-based framework to facilitate regular conversations.
“We try to emphasize that this is not a platform where the young adults are there to save the older adults from social isolation, because loneliness does really occur in a u-shaped curve where younger adults and older adults are the ones who are most affected by it,” said Anagha Kumar, A.B. ’22, a neuroscience concentrator. “It is a bi-directional relationship; both people receive a companion who they can talk to.”
For Kumar and co-founder Prasidh Chhabria, A.B./S.M. ’22, an applied math concentrator at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the concept for The Concordium was born out of a dining hall conversation they had freshman year. They shared an interest in helping older adults stay socially connected.
“My mother was a geriatrician and I grew up with an elderly grandmother,” Chhabria said. “So I was always surrounded by an acute awareness of what aging means for the human condition. I realized very quickly that in the U.S. in particular social structures don’t support many issues with aging, particularly the loneliness epidemic.”
Kumar saw the painful effects of loneliness while working with older adults as a high school volunteer, and she realized how widespread the problem is during a summer internship crafting policy at the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging.
“I saw that social isolation is actually the root cause of a lot of separate issues, whether that be a lack of nutritional sustenance or increased susceptibility to frauds and scams,” she said. “Prasidh and I combined our research interests and decided we had to do something about this issue, which disproportionately affects older adults because they lack access to technology or other means to stay connected.”
They spent a year conducting focus groups, speaking with socially isolated older adults, health care professionals, and other experts before arriving at the concept for The Concordium.
“At no point do we want older adults to feel like this is an intervention,” Chhabria said. “Our guiding philosophy is to foster natural, unscripted conversation and harness the power of intergenerational relationships.”
Kumar and Chhabria developed a straightforward, web-based platform that is designed for individuals who are not very familiar with technology. Now operating in the Harvard Innovation Labs, they’ve relied on the help of mentors to fine-tune the user interface, market the platform, transition the startup to a 501(c)3 organization, and navigate grant proposals.
To recruit young adult volunteers, the co-founders have reached out to colleges and high schools and are working to set up Concordium chapters in different cities. The videoconferencing platform eliminates the need for volunteers to travel, which has proven to be a major incentive for young adults.
To reach older adults, the team works with councils on aging, senior centers, and nursing homes, and also relies on physician referrals.
“One of our biggest challenges is targeting the population who needs it the most—who are usually older adults who don’t have access to technology,” Kumar said. “So we’ve had to come up with a few creative solutions, like subsidizing technology and getting it to older adults who might not have it otherwise, and partnering with organizations that can help us get technology to older adults.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made things more difficult, since volunteers can no longer visit older adults in person to show them how to use the technology.
Kumar and Chhabria are working closely with their board of advisors to navigate those challenges as they continue to market Concordium to a wider audience. In addition to reaching more older and younger adults, they hope to start a larger conversation about how loneliness can negatively affect anyone.
“We believe that intergenerational solutions are the best way to combat the loneliness epidemic we are seeing right now,” Kumar said. “Seeing others get very interested in forming relationships with older adults and learning more about the issues that the aging population faces on a daily basis has been really inspiring.”
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Adam Zewe | 617-496-5878 | firstname.lastname@example.org