Seniors With Skills: Reducing Social Isolation

Loneliness and isolation among the elder population was already news before the pandemic. And now, as COVID-19 continues to impact the world, it’s been exacerbated. Living alone leads to increased feelings of isolation, which impacts health.

Generation Gaps Shrinking

For starters, some good news: A study from a U.K. senior-living provider shows a narrowing of the generation gap. McCarthy & Stone, a manager of retirement communities, examined how different generations’ perceptions have shifted during the pandemic. The takeaway: 60% of both younger and older generations have spent more time speaking with each other since the start of the pandemic, and most of these conversations took place over the phone. Go figure. No texts, TikTok videos, Instagram or Facebook messages, or emails.

[See: 9 Strategies to Reduce Falls for People With Dementia.]

A Group to the Rescue

I recently learned about a group called Seniors with Skills. SWS is based in the U.S. with tentacles in Canada, and the group partners with youth volunteers to help end seniors’ social isolation.

The organization, founded by Jaya Manjunath in 2018, has expanded to reach hundreds of volunteers in both the U.S. and Canada. Manjunath aims “to encourage more young adults to take care of our senior citizens and end social isolation.” She’s quite the activist: For the last eight years, she volunteered at various retirement residences both in the U.S. and Canada. “I have always been drawn to starting small initiatives in retirement residences,” she says. When she was 16, she started a pilot program called Computers for Seniors, in which she canvassed local computer companies for donations. She also helped some residents apply for part-time jobs and volunteer opportunities. “I am bringing my high school pilot project to life,” she says.

Prior to COVID-19, SWS ran the Cards and Knitting Program, where volunteers would make cards and knit with seniors in nursing homes, and the items would be donated to local hospitals. The organization also ran a computer training program as a way for volunteers to teach seniors technological skills.

[READ: A Guide to Home Isolation During the Coronavirus Pandemic.]

This has since been transformed into an online buddy program. Taking advantage of the opportunity to host calls through platforms such as Zoom or over the phone, the SWS Online Buddy Program has expanded to nursing homes in Buffalo, Texas and Toronto. In addition to the conversations, there are pre-recorded arts and craft courses designed by volunteers sent to many nursing homes to keep seniors entertained through virtual platforms. (In fact, I’m contributing music performances to their library!)

Of course, this could not have been formed at a better time. The U.K. studied noted that 52% of older and 46% of younger generations sought comfort through increased contact with each other. This could help shift perceptions about getting older, which is particularly important during these trying times. That’s especially true as older generations have been labeled somewhat expendable.

Technology Obstacles

SWS is reaching more than 1,000 seniors through 300 volunteers. In fact, they have more volunteers than people to serve. Part of that is a technology barrier. First, many homes are still in the prehistoric VHS period. (Really: They are!) Many of the facilities that don’t have technology are where the need for this kind of support is strongest. Affluent communities with technology bells and whistles seem to have fewer isolation and loneliness issues.

To that end, SWS has been hosting numerous fundraisers to send technology to low-resource nursing homes in order to facilitate future programming. They’ve also been in touch with hundreds of nursing homes across the country, hoping to expand their reach.

[READ: The U.K. Now Has a Minister of Loneliness. Does the U.S. Need One?]

It sounds straightforward, right? But to really understand the passion and impact, I encourage you to watch this video of the group’s volunteers, who tell us why they’re doing what they do. We need so much more of this in the world.

Let’s give a round of applause to these amazing young people.

More from U.S. News

7 Surprising Things That Age You

Easy Ways to Protect Your Aging Brain

9 Strategies to Reduce Falls for People With Dementia

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