“5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic” With Derenda Schubert of Bridge Meadows

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

We are disconnected from one another, which leaves us vulnerable to feeling we do not have commonality with one another. We can see the outgrowth of this phenomenon in our angry, polarized society. Loneliness also increases health costs. When people are isolated, they are less likely to be active, sleep well, and seek medical care for minor issues. To put it bluntly, the former US Surgeon General stated that social isolation is as detrimental to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In addition, when people are lonely and not connecting with others, they are not sharing their skills and talents with others. We are all missing out.

As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Derenda Schubert.

Dr. Derenda Schubert serves as the Executive Director of Bridge Meadows and is a licensed psychologist with extensive experience counseling children and families and creating mental health and developmental disability programs. Dr. Schubert’s doctoral research focused on developmental disabilities and children’s mental health. She has held several executive leadership roles, including Chief Operating Officer and Associate Director of Training at two of Oregon’s largest child and family mental health agencies. Dr. Schubert’s current passion is advocating for intergenerational solutions. She leads the team that created Bridge Meadows, spearheading strategic planning and shaping Bridge Meadows’ vision for the future. Dr. Schubert speaks locally and nationally on the topics of children’s mental health, community building, and intergenerational living.

Under Dr. Schubert’s leadership, Bridge Meadows has received national and international recognition from The National Home Builders Association; Angel in AdoptionTM by Senator Ron Wyden; The Eisner Foundation Intergenerational Excellence Prize and The 2017 Fostering Innovation Award from Corporate LiveWire. In 2016, Dr. Schubert was honored as Extraordinary Executive Director by Portland Monthly Magazine and recognized as a 2017 Woman of Influence by the Portland Business Journal. She is an American Leadership Forum Senior Fellow and an Encore Public Voices Fellow. Dr. Schubert is a graduate of Purdue University and DePaul University. Her passion for making the world a better place is inspired by her own children and the love of her grandmothers.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I grew up outside of Chicago in a hardworking, blue collar, Polish Catholic Family. There was much love and there were really challenging times. My grandmothers and aunts were a big part of my life because my mother suffered from depression. They provided support, guidance and encouragement as the family navigated life with my mother. I loved school and saw it as a sanctuary where I could immerse myself in something I could control. The relationships with my grandmothers and aunts and the consistency of school provided stability and support that I needed. Though it wasn’t easy, I developed valuable skills and insights into the power of intergenerational bonds and the struggles families dealing with mental illness face.

I headed off to Purdue University as the first girl in my family to attend a four-year college, and later, I was became the first person in my family to earn a doctorate. It was a big deal, because my family didn’t even expect me to go to college at all. I earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and then headed off to DePaul University to become a clinical psychologist. I loved learning, and I still do!

So, I would say my foundation is based on the power of intergenerational connections, family love, managing adversity and driving toward what you know to be right even when those around you think you are crazy!

What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

It was really a combination of my love for children and family, along with wanting to understand my mom’s depression. My family tried to get her help, but it was a difficult road.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I had my career all mapped out. I had planned to have a private practice in a nice downtown office — that was going to be the pinnacle of my career. I got to that point, and though I enjoyed working with children and their families, I realized that I missed being a part of a team. I decided to join a large, innovative agency focused on delivering high quality mental health services across the state. After about nine years, I needed a change. Though I knew nothing about real estate development, construction or architecture, I decided to join the board of a new intergenerational housing community in Portland, Oregon, which led to becoming the Executive Director of Bridge Meadows. So, here I am a clinical psychologist learning about complicated financing, stormwater management and the importance of window placement — not exactly what I imagined I’d be doing. But I so believed in the power of creating homes for children who had been in foster care and their adoptive families. In case you aren’t familiar with the way Bridge Meadows works, let me explain a bit. We create intergenerational urban housing communities designed for healing and connection. We have two communities in the Portland metro area with about 75 members each. Our primary social purpose is helping children who have experienced foster care, and we do this by surrounding kids and their new families with love and support. A huge part of the community is made up of elders, who serve as surrogate grandparents and mentors. The beautiful thing is that the kids give the elders meaning and purpose, and the elders give the kids and families an extra safety net that is so needed, especially when there is a history of trauma.

You can see why I jumped at the chance to be a part of this innovative idea (Dr. Brenda Eheart, who founded Hope Meadows, originally designed the model) — it was challenging, but had so much potential to revolutionize the way we approach social issues. Normally we deal with poverty, social isolation, health, and housing as separate entities. Finally, we are starting to think about how all of these issues can be addressed in one place, and with the power of human connection. That appealed to me as a psychologist.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting?

When we opened our first community, we would gather the community members for a weekly snack time. We named this event, “Happy Hour” because we wanted people to come and enjoy some time together. One of the children was asked by an interviewer, “What is your favorite thing about Bridge Meadows?” The child answered, “I love Happy Hour!” We promptly changed the name of the gathering to “Happiness Hour.” We didn’t want anyone thinking we were serving inappropriate beverages to children!

Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

My takeaway was to make sure I looked at our messaging to ensure that our language was in line with our mission and values.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, my team and I are creating more Bridge Meadows communities, and we are developing an education arm of the organization to teach others how to create and implement intergenerational programs. Building relationships across the generations positively impacts everyone’s health. In a Bridge Meadows community, relationships between elders and kids that are nurtured over time lead to strong safety nets that benefit them both.

When we build more communities, we help more people. This means that children who have experienced foster care will have a beautiful, safe place to live with their forever families, and parents will have support from other adoptive families. Elders in our future communities will find meaning and purpose as they become a part of the kids’ lives, too. But it isn’t just the people within Bridge Meadows that benefit, actually. We’ve seen the surrounding neighborhoods improve, too. Nearby neighbors participate in our programs, and relationships develop. In this way, Bridge Meadows brings the larger community together, which increases our impact.

Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?

As a clinical psychologist working with children and families for the last 23 years, I have witnessed the negative impact that social isolation has had in the lives of children, families and elders. Human brains are wired to ensure that we are socially connected to one another. When we are not connected to one another, our health and safety are negatively impacted. Being connected creates safety: we watch over one another, which decreases stress. I know the power of intergenerational relationships because my aunts and grandmothers provided such loving, attentive, caring support to ensure that I never felt alone.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

Yes, three of the reasons loneliness can harm our health include, but aren’t limited to the following:

  1. Cortisol levels (the stress hormones) increase, negatively impacting our hearts, our cognitive abilities (i.e., memory, problem-solving), and our immune system.
  2. Depression can worsen as one’s perception of being disconnected from others turns into negative self-talk. This can create a downward spiral and self-fulfilling prophecy of thinking others do not want your company, you have no friends, and you are not worthy of their time and attention.
  3. Sedentary habits increase, because when we are not connecting with others, we are usually on screens at home, sitting on the couch. This increases the risk of weight gain, heart problems and overall poor health.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?

We are disconnected from one another, which leaves us vulnerable to feeling we do not have commonality with one another. We can see the outgrowth of this phenomenon in our angry, polarized society. Loneliness also increases health costs. When people are isolated, they are less likely to be active, sleep well, and seek medical care for minor issues. To put it bluntly, the former US Surgeon General stated that social isolation is as detrimental to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

In addition, when people are lonely and not connecting with others, they are not sharing their skills and talents with others. We are all missing out.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

Despite the fact we can connect with people 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, there has been an increase in loneliness. When we connect solely through technology, we are missing that deep emotional bond that we are hardwired for. We are social creatures whose physical, social, and emotional needs are best met through human-to-human contact.

Three things that contribute to loneliness are:

1. Social Media — When we are engaging with a screen, looking at the photos of fun others are documenting and experiencing, we can feel lonely, left out and disconnected. We may think our lives are not as fulfilling as those depicted on screen.

2. Individualistic / Sedentary lifestyle — We have fewer and fewer places where we intersect with each other. We commute to work and school in cars, instead of walking or riding a bike. We sit while we work. We can even grocery shop from our couch!

3. Living alone — As the average marriage age increases, more people are living alone. Children move away for school and work, and women often outlive men.

Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.

  1. The ‘Front Porch’ Solution: Front porches facilitate informal connection with neighbors and family. We can create ‘front porches’ by sitting in the public areas of our homes, apartment buildings, or neighborhoods. Just put a few chairs in your front yard, or sit on a bench in the park. Use social media to invite folks to sit on your ‘front porch’ for planned or impromptu connection.
  2. Don’t just sit, Move! Go for a walk, ride a bike, or join a community fitness class. Have a walking meeting instead of a sitting meeting. Make sure you walk at least 30 minutes a day. Your heart will thank you.
  3. Sleep Well: When we sleep well, we are refreshed and less likely to succumb to negative feelings and isolation. Prepare your bedroom to be calm, uncluttered, cool and quiet. The better you sleep, the more rest your mind and body receive preparing you the next day of social connection.
  4. Volunteer: Volunteer for something you’re passionate about. You will find meaning and purpose in your day and be so busy you will not have time to be lonely. You just may pick up some friends along the way.
  5. Connect with Friends and Family: Make it part of your routine to spend time with people. Share a meal, a cup of coffee, take a walk, enjoy a game, or take a fitness class together.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We are on a journey to bridge the generations in order to create safety nets for kids, families and elders. Children can never have too many people loving them, families need support, and elders have time to share with their gifts and talents. In this divisive time, I urge people to realize that we are stronger and more resilient when we are working together, not segregated and separated by age or any other demographic.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would like to meet Melinda Gates. I admire the way she addresses big problems with common sense solutions that last for generations (i.e., vaccines). I believe reconnecting the generations is a common sense solution to loneliness and social isolation, so I think she may like our Bridge Meadows approach! I would be interested in asking her how she navigates life as a woman and mother and the lessons she hopes to leave her children.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @BridgeMeadows
Instagram: bridgemeadows
Facebook: @bridgemeadows
Linked In: https://www.linkedin.com/company/bridge-meadows/

Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!

“5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic” With Derenda Schubert of Bridge… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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