Priscilla Bogema lives in a rural town called McGregor, Minn., in a part of the state that has more trees and lakes than people.
She came here about 20 years ago seeking solitude during a major crisis in her life. She had just gotten divorced and was dealing with some health problems. "So I came to a place where nobody could see me," she says.
Now Bogema is in her 60s, frail and mostly confined to her house. Her arthritis and other health problems have limited her mobility. She struggles with the upkeep of her home and yard. She drives into town once a week for groceries and a movie with other seniors. But she doesn't have close friends she sees regularly, and her children and grandchildren visit only once every few months.
The solitude she once sought is no longer as comforting. "It can get lonely, very lonely," she says.
According to a recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Bogema is one of about 2.5 million rural residents (about 7% of the total rural population) who say they have no friends or family nearby to rely on. An additional 14 million (about 39%) say they have only a few people. Like Bogema, many feel isolated.
People in rural areas report "feeling lonely or left out," says Carrie Henning-Smith, the deputy director of the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center and one of the authors of a recent study on rural isolation, despite the fact that rural communities often have stronger social networks than urban ones. She notes that many communities have become more socially isolated in recent years as rural economies have declined and young people moved away.
Social isolation is increasingly recognized as a public health issue. Studies show that isolation and loneliness put people at a higher risk of long-term physical and mental health problems, including premature mortality. And Henning-Smith's preliminary research suggests that in rural areas, isolation can reduce people's ability to meet daily needs, such as access to health care and food.
A group in northeastern Minnesota is tackling this problem in a novel way: They're trying to reconnect a fragmented social fabric by bringing together generations to support each other — kids and the elderly.
McGregor is one of 18 rural communities running the program called AGE to age. It connects more than 4,000 youths with almost 2,500 older adults annually.
The initiative is not just geared to help the elderly — the support runs both ways. It also helps children and young people in these communities feel more supported, giving them work experience and mentors. Children and seniors work on projects together; the kind of activity varies from community to community and can range anywhere from participating in a reading club, to building and maintaining a community garden, to helping local food pantries, to working on art projects. Along the way, they develop meaningful relationships that can last beyond the program.
Cheryl Meld is the director of Kids Plus, a local McGregor group that runs the AGE to age program in this community. She hopes it can help give the town a different future. "I would like to see a more connected community, and one that sustains those connections," she says.
The initiative is "truly unique," says Carter Florence, senior director of strategy at Meals on Wheels America, who grew up in rural Appalachia, in Hazard, Ky., and has spent much of her career working in rural areas. Many places around the country, she says, "are trying to support community connections and grow the close-knitedness of their communities," she says. But most of these efforts are small-scale, she adds.
"Having such a big program covering such a wide area, that is really intentionally focused on the intergenerational connectedness, is unique," agrees Henning-Smith.
A once-bustling town empties out
Social isolation and loneliness weren't always a problem in McGregor and neighboring towns, says Meld, who grew up in the next town over, Tamarac. These were once thriving, connected communities, she says.
"There were large families," she says. "There were a lot of people doing things together and a real sense of neighbors and neighborhoods."
McGregor once had a bustling downtown, full of stores, bars and restaurants. People shopped and socialized there, running into each other and stopping by each other's homes, Meld remembers. But that started to change a couple of decades ago, she says, when the local economy began to decline.
Stores like Walmart and Costco arrived, pushing out local businesses. Minnesota's timber industry, a big source of employment, began to struggle. And family farms did, too, as the farms became less profitable and young people moved away looking for other careers.
"So we lost the sense of generational businesses and families living here," says Meld.
Today, downtown McGregor is eerily quiet, with only a handful of businesses, such as a car repair shop, a bowling alley, a health center, a church and a funeral home.
"People don't just get together or drop by for a visit [anymore]," Meld says. "You don't see kids playing pickup games; you don't see them get together to play a game of softball."
The recent poll by NPR, Harvard and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that low income contributes to isolation. The poll found a higher proportion — about 3 in 10 — of rural adults in households earning less than $25,000 a year say they always or often feel lonely and isolated from others, compared with those who earn more money. Previously published studies show that poverty is associated with a greater experience of social isolation.
The economic decline has affected the well-being of the entire community, Meld says. Older adults are increasingly aging in isolation. And young and middle-aged people are having to work harder to make ends meet.
Poverty and social isolation have contributed to rising addiction rates in the community, Meld says.
All this has led to children growing up in difficult family circumstances, with hardly any opportunities to escape their realities.
"If you talk with kids, they'll tell you their parents are separated or divorced or going through some kind of substance [abuse] issue, and that's commonplace," Meld says. "The reality of their life is a lot of disruption, a lot of sadness, a lot of kids filling adult roles in their families' lives, helping raise their siblings."
Supporting vulnerable children
AGE to age program leaders in each community make an effort to engage the most vulnerable kids, says Lynn Haglin, director at the Northland Foundation, a Minnesota foundation that started the AGE to age program and funds it.
Without help, many kids — "children in the shadows," as she calls them — end up struggling on their own, Haglin says. These are "young people that kind of move through school very quietly and they just don't have those moments where they are made to feel like, 'Wow you are really something; you really have a lot to offer,' " says Haglin.
Annastazia Vierkandt, now 20 years old, mostly grew up in McGregor. She says the Kids Plus AGE to age program was a lifeline for her.
When she was a kid, she and her family rarely saw their neighbors or friends. She had three siblings and three half-siblings, but they were on their own a lot.
"Being the oldest sister, I was just expected to take care of the kids," she says. "My mom wouldn't go out and play with them or anything like that. Sometimes, we'd just be inside playing, and she'd be inside in her room, or sitting on her phone."
Her father lived in another town, and her stepfather worked long hours. Vierkandt spent much of her childhood feeling alone.
Studies show that social isolation puts people at risk of a range of physical and mental health problems. And by the time Vierkandt was about 12 years old, she began to struggle with anxiety and depression.
Then, in seventh grade, she signed up to work with Kids Plus and met Barbara Coplan, who remembers when they first met.
"A very bubbly, happy girl, but she would be stressed and inward," says Coplan, who is now 70. "And she needed some encouragement to be Anna, because Anna's a really cool person!"
The two of them would meet up after school and head out into the community to work on various projects — helping out at community meals, a soup kitchen, a bake sale, a flower sale.
"Anything that they did, I was usually there, because I didn't want to be at home," Vierkandt says.
As she got to know Coplan better, Vierkandt started to open up to her about her home life, Coplan recalls. And Vierkandt was also anxious about a lot of things and afraid to talk to people.
Coplan, who has worked with more than 50 children through the program over the years, realized that Vierkandt didn't have much support from the adults in her life. "It's hard for the kids to fight when they feel like they don't have the support they need," she says.
So she began to give Vierkandt lots of encouragement to come out of her shell.
She says she would say to her: "Hey, you're a great person! You talk to people, and communicate with them like you want. You're loving, you understand things. And if they don't want to talk to you, what's the worst that can happen? They'll say get away from me, OK!"
Coplan was a positive role model, says Vierkandt. "If I got frustrated or didn't understand how to do something, she was very patient and able to explain it in a way that would help me understand," she says.
The relationship, she says, helped her get through some difficult years and helped her stay away from drugs, which is what a lot of kids she knew were doing.
Connecting kids with an older adult is a way to give them the support of a mentor and a chance to feel like a valued member of the community, says Haglin.
"It's really quite powerful, the impact [of having a] caring adult who takes an interest in this child who is struggling a little bit, who just needs that one-on-one to give them that lift or boost they need," she says.
Previous studies in other communities show that an older mentor can help children in all kinds of ways, such as improving their academic performance, increasing their awareness and self-confidence and even reducing their risk of drug use.
Surveys by the Northland Foundation show that 85% of children and youths participating in AGE to age across northeastern Minnesota say they have created new friendships with their peers and adults, says Haglin. And all the adults who participate in the program say it has increased interactions between older adults and youths in their community.
And for the older adults, says Meld, the chance to help kids gives them a sense of purpose.
"Ninety-five percent of older adults report a renewed sense of purpose and community connection," says Haglin. "And 94% of older adults report decreased feelings of isolation."
It's a bright but cool summer morning and Bogema is dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans. She is expecting a group from Kids Plus to help her with some yardwork. "I'm dressed to work in the yard today," she says with a smile. "Even if I don't pull weeds, I'm ready to go."
Soon, a team of three — Lisa Belinger, an employee with Kids Plus, and two 14-year-old boys, named Mason Jokamaki and Darian Morgart — arrive at Bogema's.
Bogema takes them to her garage so they can grab rakes, and the team gets to work on her yard.
"Oh gosh you guys, thank you!" says Bogema. "Lifesavers!"
Not only is she grateful for their help, she also appreciates their company. Their presence, the sound of their voices — talking and joking with each other — comfort her, she says: "It's like I'm not alone."
The program has made her feel more plugged in to the community. In fact, this year, she signed up to volunteer herself. Starting this fall, she will join the group's Reading Pals program, where seniors read to children and help them improve their reading skills.
As for 14-year-old Darian, who's helping Bogema rake her yard, he says he decided to work with Kids Plus "just to hang out in the summer [with friends], because other than that we don't hang out normally."
People live far away from each other, so without a ride from a parent, seeing friends outside of school isn't easy, he says.
His friend Mason says he likes working with his friend. "It doesn't feel like work. It feels like fun," he says.
The program also makes them feel more connected to other people in the town. "If I'm doing something for other people ... and then, I see them further down the line, like somewhere else, then they recognize me and I recognize them," says Morgart. "It's just nice."
And those community connections can last well beyond the program, as they did for Anna Vierkandt.
Today, Vierkandt is happily married with two children. She is no longer in contact with her own mother, but thinks of her AGE to age mentor Coplan as her second mother and continues to stay in touch with her. Coplan was the first person she texted with pictures after she gave birth to her son earlier this year.
Coplan and the program changed her life, says Vierkandt, by giving her "a sense of purpose and belonging."
The program benefits the entire community, says Coplan. "Because all it does is pull everybody together."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There's a part of Minnesota that has more trees and lakes than people. It's beautiful, but the people who live there say it can also be lonely.
ANNA VIERKANDT: For me to go anywhere to see anyone that I know personally, it would be, like, a 30-mile drive.
SHAPIRO: That's Anna Vierkandt. She's one of an estimated 14 million rural Americans who have few people nearby to rely on. It's based on a recent poll by NPR looking at life in rural America. As NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, a group in Anna's hometown is trying to reconnect the community.
JACK: Oops (unintelligible).
VIERKANDT: Hey, Jack, would you like to go outside?
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Anna Vierkandt lives on a small farm in a rural town called McGregor. She's 20 years old, married and has two children.
VIERKANDT: The moon - you see the moon.
CHATTERJEE: She's trying to create the kind of family she didn't have growing up. When she was a kid, she and her family rarely saw their neighbors or friends. And there was this incredible distance within the family.
VIERKANDT: We'd just be there to eat or if we did talk or on the off chance there was a good table conversation, it would just be - you know, someone would be getting ridiculed.
CHATTERJEE: Anna's recently had a baby, and these memories of her childhood are weighing on her mind. She had three siblings and three half-siblings, and they were on their own a lot.
VIERKANDT: Being the oldest sister, I was expected to just help take care of the kids, so my mom wouldn't go out and play with them or anything like that. Sometimes we'd just be inside playing, and she'd be in her room or sitting on her phone.
CHATTERJEE: Her father lived in another town, and her stepfather worked long hours. Anna felt alone. By the time she was about 12, she was struggling with anxiety and depression. Studies show that social isolation and loneliness put people at risk for a range of physical and mental health problems. But one day, when Anna was in seventh grade, she finally found an escape from her loneliness. She saw flyers for an after-school program called AGE to age that connected kids with older people in the community, like Barbara Coplan.
BARBARA COPLAN: Gosh, you know, being old, memory's not so good.
CHATTERJEE: But Barb does remember Anna when they first met.
COPLAN: Very bubbly, happy girl, but she would be stressed and inward and I think she needed a little bit of encouragement to be more outgoing and to be Anna because Anna is a really cool person.
CHATTERJEE: So Barb got to work. Anna says they'd meet up after school and head out into the community.
VIERKANDT: I would help with the community meals. We went to a soup kitchen once, concession stands at school. Like, we did a bake sale. We did a flower sale. Like, anything really that they needed help with, I was usually there because I didn't want to be at home.
CHATTERJEE: As Anna got to know Barb better, she started to open up, talked about how isolated she and her family were and also how she was afraid to talk to people. Barb would say to her...
COPLAN: Hey, you're a great person, and you talk to people and communicate with them like you want. I mean, you're loving. You understand things. And if they don't want to talk to you, what's the very worst that can happen? They say away from me, OK?
CHATTERJEE: Barb and Anna worked together for about three or four years through this program. It's run by a local group called Kids Plus, and it connects about 175 children each year with about 30 seniors in the community. Cheryl Meld runs the organization.
CHERYL MELD: I would like to see a more connected community and one that sustains those connections.
CHATTERJEE: The poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health finds that 46% of rural Americans say they have few or no one nearby to rely on. Nearly 1 in 5 say they often or always feel isolated or lonely. Cheryl, who grew up in the next town over from McGregor, says things weren't always like this. These were once thriving, connected communities.
MELD: There were large families, so there were a lot of people doing things together and a real sense of neighbors and neighborhoods.
CHATTERJEE: That started to change a couple decades ago when the local economy began to decline. Stores like Walmart and Costco arrived, pushing out local businesses. Minnesota's timber industry, a big source of employment, began to struggle, and family farms did too as they became less profitable and young people moved away looking for other careers.
MELD: So we lost that sense of generational businesses and generational families living here. People don't just get together or drop by to visit. You don't see kids playing pickup games. You don't see them getting together just to play a game of softball.
CHATTERJEE: Cheryl says poverty and isolation are part of the reason for rising addiction rates here.
MELD: We see people trying to find happiness in self-medication or alcohol use or substance use.
CHATTERJEE: She's been working for about a decade on this program to give the town a different future, one with a sense of connection, for older people who may not get to see their kids or grandkids for months at a time, and for young people like Anna Vierkandt.
MELD: Yes, exactly (laughter).
VIERKANDT: Yeah, that's what my kids do, too.
CHATTERJEE: Anna recently stopped by the Kids Plus office to see Cheryl and her mentor Barb, who continues to look out for her.
COPLAN: And do you take me time? Because you need that, too, you know.
CHATTERJEE: Anna says Barb is like her second mother. She's the first person she texted with pictures after her baby was born. She says Barb changed her life by giving her...
VIERKANDT: A sense of purpose and belonging.
CHATTERJEE: There are programs like this one in 17 other rural communities in northeastern Minnesota. It's one of the few places in the country that's working to fight isolation on such a scale by connecting different generations. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.