The pandemic has left many college students with more time on their hands and fewer job opportunities. As another impact of the pandemic has been increased loneliness and isolation of older adults, some students are finding that becoming a friend to an older adult is an opportunity to do something meaningful with their time. In some cases, it may even present a work opportunity.
According to The New York Times, companionship programs that pair young and older adults — both paid and volunteer — have sprung up across the U.S in response to the public health crisis, resulting in new connections and unexpected friendships.
Via a community program in Philadelphia called Time Out, coordinated by the Penn Memory Center and Temple University’s Intergenerational Center, local college students “provide high quality, low-cost respite care — temporary relief from the responsibilities of caregiving — to families supporting an older adult, including those with physical or cognitive disabilities.” During the pandemic, Time Out launched a web-based initiative Weekly Smile connecting college students with older adults, often those with dementia, through weekly meetings between participants over Zoom.
Ximena Trejo-Mora, 20, a student at Temple University and a volunteer at the program, would talk to Chris Weeks, 90, who has dementia, for about an hour each week, giving Weeks’ wife brief breaks from caregiving, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in September.
“I feel very fulfilled after our conversations,” Trejo-Mora told The Philadelphia Inquirer. It also allows her time away from her studies, and “it’s nice to just have an hour and stay in the present and have a conversation with someone,” she said.
Similar initiatives have been launched this year by health tech companies. The app Mon Ami, which aims to “scale community support for seniors,” set up a volunteer phone bank to support isolated older adults, The New York Times reported in April. Meanwhile, paid Mon Ami companions are making phone calls and virtual visits, and local governments and nonprofits are using the app to mobilize volunteer efforts and multiply the impact of community agencies without increasing staff.
Another health tech company, Papa, also offers companionship to older adults with paid participants, or “Papa pals,” with some of them helping run errands, picking up groceries or prescriptions.
According to The New York Times, Ricardo Figueroa, 31, a paid companion from Papa, checks in on Bill Rodger, 91, through phone calls, while another Papa pal transports Rodger to his dialysis appointments.
“There’s no other option,” Roger’s granddaughter Tanya Martin told The New York Times. “This saved my home, saved my career.”
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Additional reporting by Nicholas Chan