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It happens to everyone, whatever your age: You’ve covered family, work, and the weather, and the conversation stalls. What do you say next?

That’s where CircleTalk™ comes in: training and curriculum designed to create meaningful and authentic social interactions—a chance for “older adults to connect with each other and feel accepted and valued by others.”

With studies that put loneliness or social isolation as a problem for more than 8 million older adults, meaningful socialization can literally be life-affirming. Yet even in communities, it can be difficult to make friends—good relationships require getting beyond small talk to sharing bigger things.

A ubiquitous problem

In 2010, founder Jenny Weyman Chartoff, now on the advisory board, was experiencing the “sandwich generation” challenge firsthand. Her teen daughter was in high school, where she was part of a group doing training in social engagement to help improve learning and well-being. Her mother had just moved to a senior living community, where despite the amenities and quality, the once-vibrantly social woman was becoming isolated.

Deborah Skovron

Chartoff approached Deborah Skovron, now CircleTalk director and creative director, who was then doing consulting in aging services. Could they “translate” the teen lessons to work for older people in community settings?

A pilot program was a huge success. “We realized we were working with a problem that was ubiquitous, but was not being directly dealt with programmatically,” Skovron says.

With continuing adjustments and development of the program, CircleTalk has now delivered more than 2,000 hours of circles and trained almost 200 leaders around the country.

Neighbors and strangers

“This was a way to get people to interact on a much deeper level,” Skovron says. “They may have lived in a community for 10 or 15 years in some cases, and people didn’t know their next-door neighbor.”

Typically, a circle is about 12 people, brought together through an announcement or flier offering a chance to “make new friends and have interesting conversations”—one hour a week for 10 weeks.

There are a few fairly strict rules, which help differentiate it from casual gatherings: Be on time, observe the one-minute time limit on remarks, keep confidentiality, actively and reflectively listen, and contribute to a safe experience. Group leaders help circle members develop these skills.

Evocative prompts

After a short meditation period, the conversations start. Prompts are carefully developed to evoke emotional experiences and evocative themes: A cherished memory, a favorite game, a joyful experience. A group leader might pass around a mirror and ask those in the circle to look at themselves and talk about an ancestor they resemble.

It’s not as simple as it sounds, however. “Everything in our program is designed around best principles and group process for creating a safe space and encouraging people to talk about emotional experience,” Skovron says. “Leaders learn how to manage conversations.”

CircleTalk usually trains activity or recreation coordinators or social workers to lead the programs in a community. “We train staff that are really motivated to develop their group leadership skills.”

After the initial training, they follow the CircleTalk curriculum—a big plus, Skovron says, because it doesn’t require a community leader to do curriculum development. Often, after the 12 weeks are up, the groups want to keep going—so CircleTalk provides 39 weeks of curriculum prompts and directions.

Switching to virtual circles

As did so many other programs, this year CircleTalk started offering virtual training and piloting virtual circles. The platform switch was successful, and it hasn’t required any major curriculum changes, either.

“I wondered if we needed to give people a chance to talk about how they’re coping with COVID and what issues they’re experiencing,” Skovron says. “But what we found is that we don’t need to do that. We give people lots of space to talk about where they are here and now, on an emotional level.

“Sometimes we’ll reference COVID, but people don’t want to talk about that all the time. They’re tired of it. They need to feel like they’re engaging with the world more than anything else.”

Early on, the founders rejected making the curriculum about aging and health issues. “You’re faced with that every day,” Skovron says.

“How about if we talk about bigger things? Like: What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

For more information, visit circletalk.org.

 

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