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Dick Edwards: “Become a student of the subject, read, and learn”

Become a student of the subject, read, and learn. How to recognize loneliness? How to help those who are isolated and lonely? There are great resources on the internet. Become a resident expert on the subject for friends, family, and others. As a part of my interview series about the “5 Things We Can Each Do […]

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Become a student of the subject, read, and learn. How to recognize loneliness? How to help those who are isolated and lonely? There are great resources on the internet. Become a resident expert on the subject for friends, family, and others.


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 Dick Edwards Author of Mom, Dad…Can We Talk?: Helping our Aging Parents with the Insight and Wisdom of Others.

Dick Edwards has forty years of experience working closely with older adults and their families. For the last twenty years of his career, Dick served as administrator of Charter House, a nationally recognized model of excellence in retirement living and long-term health care, affiliated with the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

At Mayo Clinic, Dick conducted early research on the question: Who does better at the business of growing older?

For fourteen years, Dick served in the leadership of LeadingAge Minnesota, a statewide association of not-for profit providers of services for older adults. He also served in the national leadership of LeadingAge.

His excellence in leadership and his knowledge concerning the care for older persons has been honored by Mayo Clinic and LeadingAge Minnesota, with their Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dick earned his Baccalaureate from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and his master’s from Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio. He and his wife, Pat, live in the Chippewa Valley region of west central Wisconsin, and have three adult children and six grandchildren.


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

The helping professions have been a part of my life — all my life. I grew up in Rochester Minnesota, surrounded by physicians, nurses and the Rochester Franciscans Sisters, founders of St. Mary’s Hospital. My first job was working in the scullery of St. Mary’s, then as a nursing assistant. I was awash in inspiring role models.

Growing up, my mother, a nurse, would say to me: “Richard, always try to be helpful and always, always be nice to old people.” Those formative experiences and a mother’s mantra set my career path. When I was invited to join Mayo Clinic and become the Administrator of Charter House, the Mayo Clinic retirement living community on the Medical Center Campus, I was coming home, so to speak, and it was both a privilege and pleasure.

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

Honestly, there are so many interesting stories over the years, it would be difficult to provide only one. Rather, I can offer a wisdom learned from a career serving hundreds of older persons and their families:

Life is better when we have an older person in our life to share with, learn from, and care for. My mother was right!

Can you tell us about your book? How do you think that will help people?

Mom, Dad…Can We Talk? is a great help for adult children dealing with the issues and concerns of their aging parents; for adult children who want to do the right thing but aren’t sure what that it is. It’s been called a “must read” and a “read-me-first.”

The book offers reassurance, support, and very practical guidance. It draws from the experience of others whose stories offer the reader insight and perspectives, lessons learned and wise counsel. Its focus is less on transactional activities — like money and advanced directives — and more on family dynamics, roles and relationships, situations, and circumstances most likely to be encountered.

Mom, Dad…Can We Talk? reminds us that this time in family life can be anticipated, that success can be planned for, and, that managed well, it can reap great rewards.

The book has also found an appreciative audience of aging parents who insist they don’t want to be a “burden” on their children. It answers their question: What can I do to make this all easier for my kids?

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

Any authority I might have comes from the life experiences and wisdoms told to me by older persons and their families; I was their student.

To set the stage for understanding loneliness and the elderly, it’s helpful to draw a distinction between growing older and aging.

Over a life span, growing older brings perks and pleasures. For example, when I got older, I got my driver’s license, moved out on my own, started a career, bought my first house, raised a family, immersed in my hobbies, indulged grandchildren; the ultimate, I got to retire! Perks and pleasures of growing older.

Aging, not so much. The hallmark of aging is loss. For example, as we age, we lose physical capabilities. We lose acuity of our four senses. We experience cognitive decline and the loss of mental functionality. We lose status. We lose people dear to us. We lose the ability and opportunities to connect with others. Aging is loss and no one likes to lose.

Most of us, to varying degrees, are wired to be connected. There are personality types and life choice exceptions, but generally, being connected is central to being human.

Social isolation is named one of the four enemies of the elderly along with falls, poor nutrition, and medication mismanagement.

It helps to acknowledge a difference between being alone and feeling lonely.

Alone is a physical state preferred by some most of the time and preferred by others some of the time. I enjoy alone time, for a while. For example, if I think my wife is taking too much time in town on her errands, I call to ask when she’s coming home. I’m lonely.

Lonely is a state of feeling — feelings of emptiness and deprivation and sadness. These can be chronic and pervasive, or they can be seasonal or episodic. Loneliness has documented, negative consequences for health and wellbeing; 40% of older persons say they experience loneliness regularly. So, “Houston we have a problem!”

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?

Love and Belonging, and feeling connected to others, are high on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. When these needs are not met, health and well-being suffer. Some say loneliness is a public health crisis affecting 30% of us.

Those who self-identify as isolated and lonely have a higher incidence of depression and elevated blood pressure.

We know that good nutrition is essential for good health. We know that food is love and that gathering with family and friends for meals is a universal, lifelong social custom. Eating alone is no fun, so it is no wonder that the elderly might default to unhealthy eating habits and suffer subsequent consequences.

Additionally, the trio of social isolation, loneliness and depression can easily combine for an increased abuse of alcohol and, I suspect, suicide.

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

Two things come to mind:

First, there are costs to the healthcare system. Physicians and healthcare providers will tell you that for many older patients, a visit to the doctor is often the highlight of that person’s week; an opportunity to connect, to have a listening ear, to feel some sort of love or affirmation. Emergency Rooms see this, too. “Help me! I’m lonely,” is the unspoken cry of socially isolated and disconnected elders.

Second, there are the costs of lost opportunity. Old people die and with them the lessons and the wisdoms of their life experiences. If we don’t seek out and connect with the elders, we are forfeit the benefits that would accrue to our families and our communities. There is a Chinese proverb to the effect that the greatness of a society can be measured by how they treat their elders. How are we doing?

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.

You’re right about living in a time where people have opportunities to connect with one another like never before; we have technology. But are we really connecting to combat loneliness, or are we kidding ourselves?

It can be argued that connections on popular social media platforms are shallow and transactional, lacking intimacy and substance. I have hundreds of friends on social media, but do I really?

Sure, there are stories of people finding love or lost friends and family, and that’s good to hear. But are we allowing ourselves to substitute social media platforms for real connections?

Many of the social platforms are inaccessible to elders. So, awareness, access and know-how are a problem. And, we’re talking about folks accustomed to phone calls, letters and in-person Sunday afternoon visits to feel connected.

The COVID pandemic has underscored the matter of social isolation and imposed heartbreaking realities on older people, their families, and caregivers. The stories are tragic. People have suffered. Imagine not being able to touch and say goodbye to a dying loved one.

I also believe that as a society we need to strike a balance between Youth Worship and Honoring Our Elders.

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. Become a student of the subject, read, and learn. How to recognize loneliness? How to help those who are isolated and lonely? There are great resources on the internet. Become a resident expert on the subject for friends, family, and others.
  2. Seek out elders. Intentionally look for older persons in your family and in your community, who are socially isolated and lonely. Reach out and invite them into your life. Seek to understand their needs. Their interests. What’s important to them. Respond. Engage them. Ask questions. Be ready to learn. The need to be needed never dies.
    Neva was a retired professor of art. She had no family. Each year, for many years, Neva would be assigned to an incoming student at the Mayo Medical College as case study in aging. She and her young doctors would meet and engage regularly. It became a status symbol to be one of Neva’s student doctors. Over the years she developed a cadre of students who graduated and went on to their own successful careers. They stayed in touch, they stayed connected. They came from across the country and surrounded her with love and gratitude on her death bed. Each of them had been enriched by sharing in Neva’s life, learning from her, and caring for her.
  3. Technology. There is a plethora of available and emerging technologies specifically designed to connect, monitor, and assist in service to the elderly. Google it! For example, GrandPad® (www.grandpad.net) is a tablet designed specifically for seniors to keep them connected to their loved ones. The tablet features easy-to-use video calling and is pre-loaded with necessary programs (with large icons), so that a senior can click on a family member’s picture to call them; can leave voice messages, play music, send emails, and play games. And because GrandPad comes with built-in 4G-LTE, seniors have a reliable connection from anywhere. No home internet or WiFi needed, no additional data contracts, and no added fees.
    -As valuable as the gadgets and gizmos can be there is the challenge of user resistance. I know one woman quite well who fiercely resisted a smartphone, who insisted there was nothing wrong with her flip phone. Enter a 14-year-old grandson who gently guided her into modern times. Did I say I know her well? It seems she’s always on her smartphone now!
    -Marcia’s mother Enda resisted the idea of having security cameras monitoring and reporting on her every move. Certainly understandable. Marcia and Enda reached a compromise with another technology. Three times a day, Monday thru Friday, Edna sat in a particular chair to watch The Price is Right, The Young and the Restless and Wheel of Fortune. Voilà! A motion detector placed discretely under the chair cushion would alert Marcia and give assurance that her mother was OK; no assurance alert would result in a phone call. On the weekend? Lawrence Welk reruns!
  4. Start where you are. Ask if your family, your neighborhood, and your community are OPF — Older Person Friendly. What resources are there to identify and serve the needs of older persons? Transportation? Nutrition? Gathering and activity opportunities? Helps with taxes, insurance filings, computer glitches, home chores, et cetera? Daily telephone check-in programs? What are the needs and how can you help develop responses to those needs?
    -Len is a widower. He lives alone, socially isolated by personality style and adverse to technology beyond his wall-mounted landline phone. His adult children and seven grandchildren have busy lives and are scattered across the country: seven grandkids, one for each day of the week. Each takes a day of the week to call Grandpa and visit with him for a minimum of 15 minutes. How is he doing? What’s he doing? Listen. Share your life. Ask his opinion. Learn. When you hang up, text your mother to report in. It works! Len feels connected and needed, and the grandkids are the better for it.
  5. SIEZE THE DAY! Never miss an opportunity to reach out and remind people that they are important to you. If someone crosses your mind, it might be a good time to reach out.

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. 🙂

Elevate the status of the elderly among us to a place of honor and reverence; they are worthy of respect and support, in accordance with the customs of several cultures and faith traditions.

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 🙂

Any influencer who is well connected and well respected, and who has aging parents and the motivation and capacity to get things done. Bill and Melinda Gates? Tyler Perry? Dolly Parton? I’ll buy!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

A good start is my website www.momdadcanwetalk.com which includes the opportunity to email me. A Facebook private message will also get a response.

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

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