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