By Matt Perry
Your physician hands you the surprising prescription. It’s not for an antidepressant. It’s not for a statin drug. Instead, it’s something completely different.
“Get connected with your community,” she says with a smile. “That’s the best health advice I can give you.”
This isn’t some utopian scenario off in the distant future. It’s happening right now in Silicon Valley as part of a progressive initiative that – finally – equates community connections to better health.
Launched by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation in 2013, the cutting-edge linkAges program was first designed to address the health problems spawned by social isolation. Today, it’s becoming a bold inter-generational innovation that could change the way healthcare is delivered — choosing people over pills.
“It’s a completely revolutionary way of saying ‘Let’s get involved in our community,’” says Vandana Pant, co-director of linkAges.
Social isolation can be more detrimental to health than smoking, affecting every part of the body and mind, including immune function, cardiovascular fitness, and mental health.
Underpinning linkAges is a philosophy spawned by inspirational retail marketers such as Nike.
“How do we use engagement and aspiration instead of fear and threat?” asks Chris Waugh, director of innovation for Sutter Health, which operates the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. “What keeps us engaged over time is joy and progress.”
The approach is a sea change from the negative warnings and lectures typical of primary care physicians and specialists.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that both Waugh and Pant come largely from non-health backgrounds.
Pant has degrees in mass communication and psychology, working predominantly in the non-profit sector for arts organizations and ORAM International, which fights sexual and gender-based violence.
Waugh is a veteran of high-profile companies like design firm IDEO and sports retailer Specialized, which makes bikes, accessories and apparel.
“The thing these consumer brands can do is engage people through inspiration,” says Waugh. “Where healthcare has gone awry is they assumed fear was a motivator.”
One hallmark of corporate branding is making customers feel like a part of a something bigger to promote loyalty and increase sales.
Yet the only things linkAges “sells” are health and community.
LinkAges was the brainchild of the medical foundation’s David Druker Center for Health Systems Innovation (where Pant serves as senior director of strategic initiatives) and first launched in Mountain View as a time bank – services traded freely among interested parties.
Originally targeting the improvement of older adult health, it addressed the greatest needs for seniors: social isolation, transportation, and household chores.
Pant’s own mother has used linkAges to help her acculturate after moving to Silicon Valley from India. She posted on the linkAges community billboard looking for Scrabble partners. They showed up in droves and, in return, would receive a hand-knitted scarf.
“My mother has a constant stream of people, total strangers,” says Pant. “It’s been fantastic.”
LinkAges has proven especially welcoming to area newcomers.
An Australian-born Canadian, Lynda Hyndman moved to the Silicon Valley to join her husband, an engineering supervisor for a satellite company. Looking for ways to connect with people, she saw a linkAges flyer at the local library and told friends she had a great service to offer.
“I jokingly said that I would wash windows and everyone said ‘That’s a good idea, everyone needs that,’” she recalls. “I got a really good response.”
In exchange, Hyndman, 59, has received rides to the San Francisco airport along with aerobics and Spanish classes. Besides the time bank exchanges, Hyndman has forged friendships for other events like Stanford University’s lecture series LASER – Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous.
“I’m on the edge of what some people consider old and it’s very inspiring to be in contact with older woman who inspire me,” says Hyndman. “They’re kind of role models to me since they’re older women who stay active.”
After a sluggish introduction three years ago, linkAges has benefited from improved marketing, a better website, and several community alliances — utility companies, colleges, libraries, governments, faith-based groups and other organizations including The Santa Clara County Health Trust where Pant formerly led strategic development.
Today, linkAges has over 1,000 members who have time banked over 3,000 hours of exchanged services since its inception. Currently in 11 cities – all but one in the Silicon Valley — linkAges will expand to Sacramento and the Central Valley in the fall.
Participants don’t need to be patients of Sutter Health or Palo Alto Medical Foundation; anyone can join.
And linkAges isn’t limited to older adults. It’s becoming a truly inter-generational program with members ranging in age from 18 to 94. About half are under 60.
Nikita Maheshwari, 31, joined linkAges two years ago after relocating to Mountain View from India with her husband the year before.
She’s taught Bollywood dance and played board games. In exchange, she’s received yoga classes, gardening help and advice on how to adopt a puppy.
“It really gives you a sense of belonging,” says Maheshwari. “In this two years I’ve made quite a lot of friends. And we keep meeting outside linkAges. That’s a wonderful thing.”
Kent Huang, 39, saw his friends moving away or starting families, which often left him feeling alone. After seeing linkAges spotlighted on a local cable channel, he went to an orientation to learn more.
“It’s not just about volunteering and helping other people, it’s all about accepting help,” says Huang. “Sometimes when I need help it’s kind of hard to ask for it.”
Waugh says linkAges has illuminated ever more clearly that loneliness is not endemic to older adults.
“It turns out it’s a problem that exists across all ages.”
Besides time banking, there are two other key components of linkAges — both in pilot phase.
First, linkAges clients can fill out a detailed profile that helps health professionals understand their areas of greatest need. Second is an online resource guide for events and services.
Despite the merits of linkAges, it still faces challenges. The biggest obstacle so far? Trust.
“This is Silicon Valley and not a lot of people are spending time with these touchy-feely interactions,” says Pant. “Lack of trust is a big issue.”
Yet linkAges has exploded in one coastal city already well-known for its tight-knit community and collaborative spirit: Santa Cruz.
“The whole value system is very different,” says Pant. “They support each other far more easily than Silicon Valley.”
“LinkAges is a community health intervention between episodes of sick care,” says Pant. “That simple thing becomes a very meaningful experience.”
“What I think is revolutionary about this is spending the majority of the time ‘out there’ where health is really happening.”