As college students around the country are facing the struggles of abruptly returning home, transitioning to online classes and respecting new social distancing guidelines, senior residents living in assisted living facilities are also struggling with not being able to see loved ones in order to prevent the spread of disease. Companions to Elders (C2E), a program within Waltham Group, is working with its partner organizations to virtually bring the student volunteers to their senior companions.
Nikki Dagen ’22, a C2E coordinator, has been volunteering with older adults since eighth grade and led a club similar to C2E while she was in high school. “I love talking to people I would otherwise never interact with,” she explained in an email to The Brandeis Hoot, “as it provides perspective and I learn so much from my conversations.”
Similar to Dagen, Olivia Spelman ’21, another coordinator, volunteered with a retirement home and a memory care unit while in high school and hoped to find an “equally fulfilling experience in college,” she wrote to The Hoot. “I wanted to join C2E when I got to Brandeis because I realized in high school that I’m the best version of myself when I’m around older people,” she added. “Listening to their incredible stories and having honest conversations makes me happier than anything else, and I wanted to spend as much time around older people as I could.”
The two main programs that C2E is continuing to hold virtually is writing letters to the elderly and being a virtual companion to an elder. Beth Solzberg, who runs the Memory Cafe at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Waltham, one of the locations C2E volunteers visit, had initially reached out to the C2E coordinators about the card writing, according to Spelman. “That’s a widespread effort that is going far beyond just Companions to Elders,” she added. Dagen said that they hope to continue the letter writing effort to other community partners in the coming weeks.
The C2E coordinators are also pairing volunteers with senior residents at Francis Cabot Lowell Mill, another partner center located in Waltham, explained Dagen. This provides volunteers with the opportunity to connect with senior residents who are hoping for regular phone calls for some socially distant company.
C2E’s current volunteers have been encouraged to keep in touch with their companions by writing letters, Spelman added. “I have been meeting with my companion for the past two years and am quite close with her, so I’ve set aside some time every Sunday afternoon to write a letter to her and attached some pictures from the past week,” she wrote to The Hoot. “Even if she can’t respond immediately, it’s nice to break up her typical routine and send some mail as frequently as I can.”
“Isolation is emotionally challenging, but we can do our best to maintain social connection while physically distant,” Dagen wrote to The Hoot. Both she and Spelman highlighted the importance of staying connected together as a community, especially with the older-aged community as well.
“Many older people in any sort of group housing have limited mobility and don’t have the same ability to go for a walk or drive that we do,” Spelman explained. “As younger people who are so tied into their community via technology and social media, it’s easy to forget that lots of older people who are already experiencing isolation may be experiencing it even more than usual.” Dagen also added that social isolation has been associated with adverse health outcomes in the elderly, so any form of social interaction can make a difference.
C2E is a program with Waltham Group where volunteers have the opportunities to participate in weekly, bi-weekly and monthly programs at various nursing homes, assisted living and low-income independent living facilities in the greater Boston area, Dagen wrote to The Hoot. “Students are paired with one or more residents they consistently visit with,” Dagen explained. “Pairs spend their time chatting, sharing stories, coloring, playing games, and more.”
Students interested in getting involved can reach out to the C2E coordinators here and they will provide instructions on letter writing, pairing volunteers with companions and information about Memory Cafe.