Five Questions With Social Entrepreneur Andrew Dowling

Name: Andrew Dowling
Job: Founder and CEO
Country: Australia and United States
Age: 51

Andrew Dowling is the Founder and CEO of Stitch, the world’s leading companionship and activities community for over 50’s. Andrew wrote his Master’s thesis on social enterprise a decade ago — long before most people had even heard of the concept — and has spent the last ten years building businesses designed to have a social impact. He is currently working to address social isolation and loneliness for older adults at Stitch. Andrew has over two decades of experience building successful technology organizations in Australia, India, China, and the United States. He has served in multiple businesses in a wide range of roles and specialties: CEO, CTO, strategy consultant, software engineer, advisor, non-executive director. Connect with Andrew on LinkedIn.

On older adults staying socially connected during COVID-19:

“The COVID-19 crisis has meant this question is relevant not just to older adults, but pretty much everyone around the world right now. Many people have been finding creative ways to stay socially connected, particularly through the use of video platforms that allow people to get together “virtually” for everything from happy hours and dinner parties through to Pilates and exercise sessions. 

For older adults, the answer has been remarkably similar. We’ve been amazed by the enthusiasm with which Stitch members have embraced virtual events and activities as an alternative way to connect socially. Most of the virtual activities scheduled on Stitch each day are booked out within minutes, and we are seeing a big increase in the number of members who are connecting with each other online, where in the past they would be meeting face to face.

Of course, depending on where you live, there is still some degree of in-person interaction happening too. Certain activities, particularly going for walks or other forms of exercise, are still allowed provided they comply with social distancing rules. We are seeing “coffee walks”, or activities like golf, taking place in the community, although the number of participants for those events is obviously much smaller than it was previously.”

On improving access to technology for older adults:

“At Stitch, we are often finding that preconceived notions about older adults not being able to access technology are often over-exaggerated. We have members who are in their 90’s, and it’s been inspiring to watch those who are comfortable with technology help those members who are still just learning. The suddenness of the COVID-19 crisis has seen a massive increase in the number of older adults who are suddenly willing to try something new like video calling, which is something we have observed a lot over the last few years: once older adults have a reason to adopt new technology, they are often far more adept than many people expect. 

Having said that, there are of course many older adults who do not have access to technology or else face other barriers. For us, the solution comes from recognizing that’s always going to be the case for a certain percentage of the population, and finding ways to address it. Some of our members, for example, act as “buddies” for other members who struggle with technology. They will give them a phone call to let them know when there is an activity they would like to attend, and often help with things like transport (which is another barrier that many older adults face). The key here is building community connections that help support those people who may struggle, for whatever reason.”

On what he’s learned since starting Stitch:

“I sometimes think I have learned more since starting Stitch than I did in my entire previous professional career. If I were to point to one thing, however, it has been how my greater understanding of the importance of social connections on our mental and physical well-being has had an impact on my own personal life. Until I started on the Stitch journey, I think I took my social connections for granted to some extent — at least, I never previously thought much about the impact of my social connections and my sense of community had on my own well-being. Being an active part of the community has highlighted how important those things are, not just for me, but for my kids and my family, and that’s been an unexpected gift.”

On increasing social connections as people get older:

“As we get older, we often face increasing barriers to social connections, including access to technology and transport, as previously mentioned, but also support for disabilities, affordable housing, and health. Organizations like Stitch are working to address those barriers, along with plenty of community organizations, local government groups, health organizations, and not-for-profits. It’s a big challenge and one that is only getting bigger as we all live longer lives.

Having said that, we have seen time and again how resilient our members are, particularly when they are been given an opportunity to be part of the solution themselves. In Stitch’s case, the most important members of the community are those members who help create social outcomes for all other members. By creating solutions that older adults themselves can create and nurture, rather than coming up with services that need to be delivered to them, we can end up creating far more sustainable outcomes for everyone.”

On his insights about loneliness and aging:

“There is a persistent stereotype of the lonely older adult, which paints a picture of inevitable loneliness as we age. In reality, the evidence tells us that older adults are less likely to feel lonely than their younger counterparts, and it is young people today who identify as the most lonely generation. 

The role that aging plays, however, is an important one, and it’s why we chose 50 as the age for people to be allowed to join Stitch. When we are younger, life brings us new social connections automatically, whether that’s through school, college, work, or even parenting. This means we can go through much of the first part of our lives without ever thinking too hard about how we build meaningful social connections. 

At a certain point, however, opportunities for those new social connections stop or decrease. And the process of aging means our social circles then will inevitably start to shrink — driven by factors such as relocation, illness, divorce, and death — unless we proactively develop new social connections. 

This is why one of the biggest things we can be doing right now to address isolation in older adults is through education. Being “lonely” today is still considered a stigma, something very few people feel comfortable admitting. They often feel that doing so is to admit there is something wrong with them.

On the contrary, it’s a natural part of life for your social circle to shrink, particularly once you reach 50 and beyond. The more people understand that, and understand that the only way to address it is to constantly open themselves to new connections, the happier we will all be as we age. 

Being “lonely” today is still considered a stigma, something very few people feel comfortable admitting.

Andrew Dowling, MBA

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