Social isolation and loneliness are toxic to everyone’s health, but especially older adults. Given COVID-19 mandates to limit face-to-face contact for the foreseeable future, these feelings are certain to increase, accompanied by threats to health and well-being.

Uncertainty surrounding the “new normal” may cast doubt on the efficacy of past solutions to isolation. Consider the notion of “third place,” neither home nor workplace, but a congenial public gathering spot, the guiding principle of Starbucks, the coffee giant. The COVID- 19-related constraints of social distancing and limited seating capacity now challenge the very concept of neighborhood coffee shops or hang outs.(1) Changing customer behavior has forced the iconic company to reconfigure its physical spaces and its entire style of product delivery. Four-hundred stores closed in North America alone; carryout and pickup only locations, such as Starbucks Now stores in China, are rapidly proliferating.

The concept of “third place” has served as a guiding principle for older adult services, such as senior centers and Memory Cafes. Ibasho Cafés, initiated in Japan, represent an empowering type of “third place.” Ibasho’s older participants run the site, choosing activities that reflect their priorities and address community needs, such as community gardening. Engaged as community resources (rather than service recipients) by participating in meaningful roles within the site reduces likelihood of social isolation. Ibasho sites are successful in Asia and may represent a future solution to social isolation for older adults in the Hawaiian Islands.

Just as major businesses are responding to pandemic-induced changes in customers’ behaviors and choices, older adult services may also need to adapt to the “new normal” of a pandemic-transformed world, supplementing face-to-face interactions with safer virtual online encounters.

Online communities for older adults have provided peer-based sources of information and support for years.(2) Traditional daycare centers and senior centers will no doubt continue to offer much-needed post-lockdown supports. Online communities, especially Ibasho-type sites that empower older adults to contribute solutions to the issues of the day, may offer a welcome complement to traditional service provision.

CENTER ON AGING — University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
2430 Campus Road, Gartley Hall, 201B, Honolulu, 96822
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1 Frommer, D. (2020). Rethinking the Starbucks “third place,”
2 Perkinson, MA. (2002). Cyberspace ethnography: Group processes in an online community of  dementia caregivers,