By Mia Hernandez, Social Connection Fellow

Who hasn’t found themselves alone when they didn’t want to be over the past two years? Now billions of people worldwide have experienced firsthand the negative impacts of social isolation and loneliness (SIL). Social isolation and loneliness didn’t start with COVID and, even as the pandemic begins to retreat, SIL won’t necessarily go away along with it. But who is most at-risk? And how do we reach them? A targeted and intersectional approach is critical to aid particular populations who are most vulnerable, including immigrants and migrant communities. We have witnessed the importance of health equity and the devastating impacts of current systems and solutions; which largely result in certain communities facing additional burdens with fewer resources. Addressing SIL among immigrants and other marginalized communities is a critical step towards addressing social determinants of health in an inclusive and equitable way. 

When uprooting and relocating to a new country, immigrants are separated from family and friends, making them more vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness. In addition to this separation, immigrants may also face social exclusion in their new country. Social exclusion can look like segregated communities, language barriers, and a lack of access to important health or social resources, such as health insurance. Disconnection from their home community along with social exclusion makes immigrants more vulnerable to experiences of racism and dehumanization which can worsen social isolation and loneliness. 

Undocumented immigrants are particularly affected as their immigration status can be used as a tool for social exclusion. Designating individuals as “illegal” not only bars them from accessing the resources they need, but also serves to separate them socially by linking them to crime in the eyes of the general public, creating feelings of anxiety and distrust. We now know that cultural expectations of connectedness also differ across the world and the connectedness needs and expectations of an immigrant might not match that of the host country, further creating room for social isolation and loneliness to take root. 

Older adults are generally thought of as a key high risk group for SIL; however, older immigrants who are part of both high risk groups merit special attention. A recent study found that peer to peer solutions, such as dance/active movement classes and English study groups, helped older Chinese immigrants to feel a greater sense of belonging and built community capacity and resilience. The classes also provided an opportunity for them to interact with people from their culture and a chance for them to socialize outside of their family. This type of solution may inherently help address some of the challenges of current immigrant population interventions, such as language and cultural barriers.

In the wake of both the violent racism towards Asian communities and isolation caused by the pandemic, Yin Chang and Moonlyn Tsai saw a need for care and connection among Asian elders. Yin, an actor and storyteller most well known for her role on Gossip Girl, and Moonlyn, a restaurateur, have been partners since 2014 and in the spring of 2020 decided to combine their skills to aid their community. Their non-profit, Heart of Dinner, provides weekly meal and grocery delivery focused on Asian cuisine to elderly East Asian New Yorkers complete with hand-drawn notes in the native language of the recipient. They have since partnered with local restaurants and farms to continue providing much needed support to the elderly East Asian population in New York City. Their impactful intersectional work provides a strong blueprint for additional SIL interventions for elderly immigrants.

In addition to forming connections with other immigrants who have shared experiences, research has shown that forming social connections with the new host country’s population helps to alleviate the impacts of social exclusion on immigrants. This demonstrates the importance of thoughtfully integrating immigrants into their new communities. 

Because immigrant communities are uniquely affected by social isolation and loneliness, it is imperative that solutions be created in partnership and dialogue with these communities. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s comprehensive report on social isolation and loneliness emphasizes that interventions are most successful when they target specific populations. Part of addressing SIL in immigrant communities is listening to what those individuals need and want. Given the role of social exclusion in the isolation of immigrants, bringing them into conversations about solutions is essential in creating greater social connectedness. 

Some immigrants are already taking action to address SIL within their communities.  Dyah Miller, a photographer and artist, immigrated to Norwood, Ohio 8 years ago and is currently creating an inclusive map of her city for distribution in “Welcome Bags”. The Welcome Bags are distributed to new neighbors and also include lists of upcoming events and services available within the city. The map is designed to highlight special places in the community where people come together and connect and to “communicate the things this town has to offer”. 

“I had such a great experience here as an immigrant and a new community member and I just wanted to share that with other new people in Norwood,” Dyah says. 

Dyah is not the only one building connections in her community; we know that others are stepping up too. The Center for Inclusion and Belonging, a project of the American Immigration Council, is currently looking to uplift and fund organizations and projects who are also building community and social connections, so if you or someone in your community is engaged in this important work check out CIB’s call for Bridging Communities Projects.

The unique experiences of immigrants make them particularly vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness, but research and policy related to this important issue remains largely uninvestigated and neglected. By listening to and studying immigrants’ experiences, we can gain a better understanding of the role that social exclusion plays in social isolation and loneliness. This knowledge will be beneficial not only to immigrants, but also to other marginalized communities. Beyond research, action must be taken to reduce loneliness and prevent isolation in immigrant communities – and people like Dyah, Yin, and Moonlyn are leading the way. 

Learn more about Dyah and Heart of Dinner here: