Remembering the World’s Most Isolated This Grandparents Day

Valuable lessons from elders in the developing world about what community and connectedness can look like.

Juan, 82, is a sponsored elder in El Salvador.

Unbound helps elders feel connection

On Sunday, Sept. 8, Americans will honor senior adults in observance of National Grandparents Day. But how can everyone join in on the intergenerational fun? As more and more countries look to address the loneliness epidemic, there may be some valuable lessons that we can learn from elders in the developing world about what community and connectedness can look like.

For 35 years, the international anti-poverty organization Unbound has paired adults 60 and older facing extreme poverty and isolation in developing nations with a sponsor in the United States. Many of those sponsored are elder orphans, older adults with no immediate family present in their lives. A recent survey found that elders in Unbound experience less loneliness and social isolation than their peers.

“Sponsorship through Unbound helps isolated elders feel connection,” said Melissa Velazquez, Unbound’s international programs director. “A key finding from our survey was that sponsored elders experience a lower sense of emptiness, less frequent feelings of rejection and fewer moments of missing people being around."

Unbound is the only sponsorship organization in the United States that includes elders. There are more than 30,000 elders in 18 countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia who are sponsored through Unbound.

Velazquez said sponsors are able to communicate with their sponsored friends by exchanging letters and photos. Sponsors have shared powerful stories about what being able to write to an elder has meant to them, whether it’s accompanying them through a personal fight with cancer or coping with the loss of a family member.

One sponsor, Tom Slattery, recently shared his story of elder sponsorship with Forbes. When his wife was dying with cancer, and he retired to stay at her bedside — “five years of hell,” he called it — his sponsored elder Francesca and her family never stopped praying. “It’s amazing how much I have gotten back,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be that way, but it was.”

Bringing young and old together is something Velazquez said the organization’s international staff has 35 years of experience doing. Each local office has its own specific approach, including a group in Colombia who managed to help elders deepen their connectedness to each other while achieving their lifelong goal of seeing the ocean for the first time.

Elder sponsorship through Unbound helps with needs like medicine, food and clothing for adults 60 and older who are living in extreme poverty and isolation around the world. In addition to providing resources that help address immediate needs for health services and nutrition, Unbound works with elders to identify their dreams and help them set goals to achieve throughout the remainder of their lives. More than 30,000 elders across 18 countries are sponsored through Unbound.