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Teens Reach Out to Isolated Older Americans Through Online Programs

Three intergenerational activities that are lifting spirits during coronavirus

spinner image a nursing home assistant wearing p p e holds a tablet up for a woman to see in her bed
Chicago Self-Help Home resident, Elaine, visits with virtual volunteer Eleanor Van Houten of Lifting Hearts with the Arts with help from a staff member during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Courtesy Self-Help Home

 | As it becomes clear that the pandemic isn't going away any time soon, family caregivers are increasingly concerned about loved ones isolated at home or in facilities. Many older adults and their family caregivers have few human interactions in “normal” times; the pandemic makes it much worse. Research indicates that isolation and loneliness are as detrimental to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The good news: Younger generations are stepping up to help meet the needs by connecting virtually and building community from a distance. These new programs and approaches borne out of the coronavirus quarantine can have positive impact far beyond this pandemic. Here are three virtual intergenerational programs that bring hope for the future.

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Lifting spirits with music and games

Maya Joshi and her twin sister, Riya, 15, began daily video calls with their grandparents when the pandemic lockdown started. Seeing how much her grandparents enjoyed it, Maya resolved to do something to help other isolated older adults. She talked with her family, called some friends and by early April 2020 she launched Lifting Hearts with the Arts. The intergenerational program involves teen volunteers connecting online with residents in 17 Illinois nursing homes and assisted living facilities via musical performances, games and 1:1 video chats. “It doesn't feel like work because it's so fun!” Maya says. She believes intergenerational connections are vital. “I think even before COVID-19 the social gaps between seniors and youth were increasing, and there's so much that the youth can learn from older generations."

The elders are benefitting, too. “These virtual activities are making a huge difference improving the residents’ moods,” says Rose Moore, director of programming at Springfield Supportive Living in Springfield, Illinois. After one resident grew more comfortable with the technology, she began initiating video calls with her friends and family. Another told Moore she was feeling lonely, bored and depressed, but the program lifted her spirits. “She has something to look forward to,” says Moore, “and she enjoys seeing their young smiles on the screen. We are all wearing masks, so the residents never get to see smiles.”

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Meals and conversation counteract loneliness

The Los Angeles-based Youth Movement Against Alzheimer's (YMAA) YouthCare program, in partnership with the University of Southern California, trains students to provide in-home nonmedical respite and cognitively stimulating activities for people living with dementia. But the program was suspended when the COVID-19 lockdown began. As a rapid response to the pandemic, YMAA reached out to their chapters in high schools and college campuses across the U.S. to create Meals Together, a program in which students have virtual visits during mealtime with those in early stages of dementia and their caregivers.

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Just three months later, 39 YMAA chapters are involved in the growing program, serving more than 175 users. They partner with nonprofits like Meals on Wheels and assisted living facilities to identify older participants, and individuals can sign up on their own, too. Natashia Townsend, YMAA's director of caregiving programs, says they describe the program to participants in early stages of dementia as a way to help the students as they prepare for their careers. “It makes them feel empowered to help someone else,” Townsend explains. The youth volunteers also find it rewarding. “It's just a great way to connect, and a lot of our seniors are feeling lonely at this time; they just want to feel like they have a friend,” she says.

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Music and dance program goes online

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Maria Genné was about to launch an intergenerational program that involved webcasting music and dance presentations to senior living communities. “We wanted to see if the online interaction was as effective and impactful as the in-person work,” said Genné, founder of Kairos Alive! a Minneapolis-based organization that provides intergenerational and intercultural participatory arts programs. Suddenly that effort became even more important. She and her intergenerational team of musicians and dancers adapted their approach and created Dancing Heart Live!, which the communication and outreach director, Cris Anderson, describes as “a two-way interactive participatory webcast TV show for all ages.”

spinner image nine different screens of people dancing while participating in a virtual dance and music program
Dancing Heart Live! creates music and movement experiences for people of all ages using virtual video chat technology.
Courtesy Dancing Heart Live

Twice a week, older adults living in their own homes or facilities, students, families, staff and volunteers join from wherever they are. The artists use various genres of live and recorded music and dance, a mindfulness meditation and themed discussions to encourage interaction. “Technology has been challenging with performers in different places, and broadband in rural areas is difficult,” says Genné. But the positives outweigh the challenges. “Programs don't just have to end — there is a virtual bridge to continue connecting!”

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