Isolated Elderly and Stir-Crazy Teens Form Real Bonds, Virtually

My Covid Story

Older adults are at high risk for severe consequences from COVID-19. While this necessitates self-isolation to help mitigate spread and reduce their chances of contraction, the ensuing seclusion is not without its own health risks. The National Academy of Sciences discovered that social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of anxiety, depression, and even premature death in the elderly. Not everyone who is socially isolated (defined as lack of social connections) is lonely and not everyone who feels lonely is socially isolated. Elderly individuals are at higher risk for loneliness and/or social isolation because of factors like living alone, losing friends and family, having a chronic illness, or experiencing hearing loss.

Whether experienced together or separately, loneliness and social isolation are referred to as “poor social relationships,” which increase the risk of heart disease by 29%, stroke by 32%, and dementia by 50%. Among people with heart failure specifically, loneliness was linked to a 4-fold increase in the risk of death, a 68% increased chance of hospitalization, and a 57% rise in emergency department visits.

Disrupted Routines Replaced with Distanced Connections

Many elderly individuals have limited social contact, often restricted to places of worship or community centers. Even routine public encounters in local businesses like grocery stores, pharmacies, or coffee shops are no longer available to the same extent, due to protections set in place against COVID-19. In addition, those who lack close friends or family, or who had relied on care from either paid caregivers or voluntary services, as well as those who were already isolated, are at an increased risk of loneliness and associated health concerns.

Seeking to alleviate the physical and emotional isolation of at-risk seniors, Rabbi Marcia Plumb of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Brookline, Massachusetts developed the Silverlining Buddy program to replicate volunteer and visiting programs that existed prior to COVID-19. This virtual program is an intergenerational collaboration, managed by Wendy Handler, designed to foster relationships between seniors and college students or young professionals. Understanding the difficulty that technology can present for some seniors, Rabbi Plumb conceived the program as an old fashioned, basic pairing of individuals through telephone contact. With the support of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), a non-profit organization in Boston, they are expanding the program to use Zoom or other technologies.

The program has successfully matched more than 100 buddy pairs

The program has successfully matched more than 100 buddy pairs, based on community needs and availability. Young adult volunteers undergo basic training and then typically connect with their senior buddies at least once a week. They discuss a myriad of topics ranging from personal life stories to politics to the science behind COVID-19. While the program was initially designed to help reduce loneliness among older adults, Ms. Handler says the program has shifted into more of an equal relationship where the young volunteers get just as much out of the experience as the older adults.

Unexpected Life Parallels

Rosalie, a senior buddy, became involved in the program through her synagogue; she thought it would be fun to talk to someone from a younger generation. She and her buddy, Nikki, a college junior, have a lot in common. Both grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Both had family members who were Holocaust survivors, and they share similar political views. Conversations between Rosalie and Nikki run the gamut from their personal lives, including gardening (a hobby of Rosalie’s) and travel to politics and science. They even exchange recommendations for good books and show each other photos over facetime. Rosalie likes hearing about changes in Brooklyn and she also now appreciates how the pandemic has imposed limitations on the younger generation still in college too. Rosalie says that she and Nikki never run out of topics and that her young companion asks thoughtful questions that make her reflect. “It’s comforting to talk to [Nikki] and hear about her life,” Rosalie said. “I think [the Silverlining Buddy System] is a very interesting and fun concept and perhaps, even after COVID, it would be good to keep it up.” 

Nikki became involved in the program through Companions to Elders, a community service program she helps coordinate for her university. Nikki relays that “[the experience] has made me insert more perspective into my day to day life, because it’s so easy to get absorbed into the bubble of college, when I’m at college, or of my childhood bedroom which I’ve been trapped in for six months! Leaving that world to talk to someone who is pretty far out of that environment gives me more perspective. Takes me out of my head.”

Leaving that world to talk to someone who is pretty far out of that environment gives me more perspective. Takes me out of my head.”

Emma, another student buddy, is a college senior majoring in biology. She said that volunteering has given her the opportunity to empathize with someone older and wiser, and helped broaden her view of the world. “If Marylin (her buddy), who has lived through many ups and downs in history still has hope that we’ll go back to normal day to day life, and is still enjoying each day; I think that just shows that we all should be thankful for what we can do and what we do have during this time.”

The Silver Lining Buddy System offers a unique opportunity that provides a meaningful connection during a time when many of us are feeling disconnected. It should serve as a role model to spawn similar programs. 

Written & Reported by Giovi Hersch
Edited by Dr. Jacki Hart

Lifelong Dream and Art Store Nearly Destroyed by Pandemic

My Covid Story:

In the writing of Margaret’s story, Congress continues to debate another much needed round of government support. The House passed a second Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in mid-May. The Senate response as of September 9, 2020 is for a much lower amount. Negotiations persist.

Lifelong Dream and Art Store Nearly Destroyed by Pandemic

Even for those who have not contracted the virus, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of us profoundly. Seeing friends and family is a challenge; attending school via zoom or a hybrid model is awkward and draining; travel is non-existent; and so much more. For many, the sacrifices have been life altering. Take Margaret, for example, the sole owner of an art store one hour outside of Philadelphia. Phoenix Art Supplies and Framing has been Margaret’s pride and only source of income for 12 years. 

Like many other small business owners, Margaret’s routine and livelihood were abruptly turned upside down as Pennsylvania and much of the United States (U.S.) shut down all non-essential businesses. To label the dream business that Margaret built “non-essential” seemed understandable but felt heartbreaking. Aren’t our politicians always talking about small business as “the backbone of America?”

But, worst of all, closing her store meant that Margaret had no income for the foreseeable future. The fear and uncertainty felt unbearable.

"The first thing I did was apply for every loan I could find"

“The first thing I did was apply for every loan I could find,” Margaret explained since she needed to pay her employees and find money to support herself and her storefront, including rent and utilities (at least she assumed at that time). The two main sources available were the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, both of which were passed as part of the large stimulus package, known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided by U.S. Congress in response to the unprecedented pandemic, and administered by the Small Business Association (SBA).

“Poster Child” for PPP, But Process Failed Margaret

PPP is a forgivable loan if business owners follow a certain set of regulations, the main one being that they continue to pay their employees. The bipartisan Bill approved an initial $350 billion for the loans, which was quickly expended. Then, an additional $310 billion was approved for a second wave of applications. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees qualified for the loan and each business could receive up to $10 million; applications were submitted to the business’s local bank and then processed by the SBA. 

Margaret completed her PPP application within hours of its online availability to the public. Her business checked all of the necessary boxes; her store is even woman-owned, which was supposed to take priority. Yet, for nearly four months, her application read as “processing” by the SBA. “It was unbelievable watching people get [the PPP loan] and me waiting for three and a half to four months with no news. My business was the poster child for that loan!” Margaret exclaimed. She felt bewildered by the delay and the lack of communication. 

And Margaret was not alone. Reports in May revealed that 38.1% of small businesses never received any assistance from the PPP, despite meeting all federal requirements. While Margaret understands that setbacks and delays are likely with the sudden rollout of such a large stimulus program, it was infuriating that the process wasn’t smoother and easier. Margaret, her few employees, and hundreds of thousands of small businesses like hers were relying on this package to survive. Margaret felt let down by the government.

Margaret, her few employees, and hundreds of thousands of small businesses like hers were relying on this package to survive

Creating Ways to Survive

Scared and still waiting for the PPP loan, Margaret harnessed her small business acumen and ingenuity to scramble together an online presence. This has allowed her customers to purchase items from the website and pick up curbside from the storefront. Unfortunately, without the PPP loan Margaret had to let go of two employees. She was super sad about this loss and disappointment. She hated letting them down, especially at a time when work is very hard to secure. Not receiving that PPP in a timely fashion led to a domino effect for Margaret, her employees, and their respective families. 

The online presence helped pull in some revenue. But Margaret could not fully support the business or herself with curbside pickup alone. About one month into lockdown, with still no responses from the SBA about the PPP or Economic Disaster loans, she created a GoFundMe page. Margaret had initially asked for $3,000 on GoFundMe, a fundraising platform for anybody who wants to start a page with a 2.9% fee. She was astonished to receive nearly $9,000 in donations – three times her initial ask! “It was really moving because it was all local people and my community pulling through for me,” Margaret remarked. Margaret feels immense gratitude to her community; they supported her and helped carry her small business through this dire time. Without them, Margaret believes that she would have been lost.

It was really moving because it was all local people and my community pulling through for me,

Loans Finally Come Through, But Complications Persist

Almost all of Margaret’s funding came from her GoFundMe page until nearly four months into the pandemic. Then, she finally received a notice from the SBA saying she was approved via the Economic Injury Disaster Loan that would provide $10,000. Margaret accepted the loan because her store was still not able to open. Five days later, she received another notification of an additional county grant for $10,000. Unfortunately, Margaret’s sense of relief was short-lived as the SBA informed her that she could only accept one of the two offers. Since the Economic Injury Disaster loan would mean she would eventually have to pay back the $10,000, Margaret tried to return that loan and take the $10,000 grant. That attempt has been a futile fiasco. “I’ve tried to call and email and I cannot reach anybody at SBA. It’s awful because I am basically losing $10,000,” Margaret said in exasperation. 

Several more months have passed by and Margaret has still not heard back from the SBA; therefore, she’s been unable to accept the grant and return the loan. As of early July, her store was allowed to reopen with many precautions taken to protect herself, her remaining employees, and her customers. She is very thankful that her community continues to support her shop through this intensely difficult time. But Margaret (like millions of others) is well aware of the chance for another shutdown. She continues to try to foster ways to transition her business to a greater online presence. When asked about the future, Margaret said she remains extremely worried, but will continue to maintain her curbside pickup and has set up a process for remote framing options. 

We are grateful to Margaret for sharing her story. The difficulty she’s experienced and her struggle to adapt her small, independent business is relatable by millions of Americans. Supporting local businesses like Phoenix Art Supplies and Framing is critical at this time. Do you have a story to tell about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted you? Share with our team and we may contact you for further details.

Written & Reported by Katarina Ho
Edited by Dr. Jacki Hart