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Social isolation: yet another way architecture can help

A brief article by Dhruv Khullar, M.D., M.P.P., physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School was released today by the New York Times (read it at https://nyti.ms/2idSeV0). It describes a phenomenon that is growing in frequency that has particularly dreadful consequences– being lonely. While seemingly simple with a straightforward solution (go out and meet people!), loneliness (or social isolation in its clinical term), afflicts 40% of American adults, despite our by-all-appearances heightened connectivity through social media. People who are particularly susceptible to social isolation are those that are in poor health and without a college education– which are also often (but not always) descriptors of people experiencing homelessness.

Khullar’s cited research statistics are scary– people with lesser social connections may be 29% more susceptible to heart disease and 32% more likely to have a stroke. They are 30% more at risk of dying in the next seven years than the general population, based on a study of 3.4 million people. In fact, loneliness is just as significant a risk factor for death as obesity and smoking. Saddest of all, social isolation can start in childhood, impacting future health.

Worse, people don’t like to admit they are lonely, making the problem a difficult one to declare and then address.

While the design of built spaces cannot by itself solve loneliness, the planning of spaces can help nudge people toward interactions. The well-placed social worker office door can prompt a conversation about joining a support group. A corridor can connect residents so that they see each other regularly. A thoughtfully designed conversation area can make people feel safe to engage with others, or provide them a safe place to which they can retreat.

Loneliness seems but one aspect of the complicated mixture of psychological concerns that can plague people who have lost their homes. Khullar’s roundup of recent statistics makes clear the urgency to address this problem through architectural design and other means.

Learn more about the potential of architecture to address psychological needs: get the free download of Design Resources for Homelessness’s Review of Research at http://designresourcesforhomelessness.org/people-1/education/

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