Weekly calls create surprise friendships
Once a week, rain or shine, a call reaches Joan Kerby’s apartment at the Lakewood Retirement Community in Richmond.
That’s the signal for the 70-year-old retiree to shoo away her husband and launch into a wide-ranging video chat with 27-year-old VCU medical student Miranda Savioli — a conversation that might last an hour or more.
Kerby, a retired IT business analyst, and the med student from Lafayette, New Jersey, have met in person only a few times. But after talking like this almost every week since April, Kerby considers Savioli a friend. She credits their calls with helping her survive the lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a way of connecting and feeling connected to the world,” Kerby said. “It has meant a tremendous amount to me, and it still does. It’s one of the things that’s helped me hold it together.”
Savioli said she feels the same way: “I look forward to talking with her every week.”
Savioli and Kerby connected through the student chapter of the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) at VCU that, among other programs, coordinates conversations between students and residents of retirement homes.
So far, the all-volunteer operation has connected about three dozen students with residents of Lakewood, a large community of retirees in Henrico County.
The virus that causes COVID-19 is much deadlier among older populations, and close living quarters have caused it to spread quickly in some senior facilities. Without a vaccine, staying away from others is the best way to avoid spreading the disease.
But that necessary precaution has come at a cost. Loneliness can have serious effects on health, particularly for older adults. An AARP study in 2018 pointed out that isolation is a major risk factor for conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure and early-onset dementia. Health problems caused or worsened by isolation cost Medicare $6.7 billion in additional spending every year, the AARP found.
This loneliness, already serious, was made sharply worse by the 2020 pandemic and ensuing lockdown, said Sarah Hobgood, M.D., associate professor of internal medicine at VCU School of Medicine and the faculty liaison to the student AGS group.
Previously active, socially engaged retirees in assisted-living facilities found themselves suddenly cut off from friends, family and fellow residents. During lockdown periods, they might not see anyone outside their apartment for weeks.
The tight restrictions on visitors also meant that students in the health professions could not visit or interact with older patients the way they usually would as part of their training. That worried the VCU students.
“We were kind of struggling to figure out how we would continue our mission,” said Nadia Khoury, a physical therapy student at VCU College of Health Professions who’s involved with the AGS group.
“We were all trying to figure out ways to help,” said Tiffany Tsay, a medical student and president of the group.
From greeting cards to meetings
Someone at VCU — no one is sure who — came up with the idea of communicating directly with residents. The proposal seemed promising but “tricky,” Hobgood said.
The main complication was that privacy law and policies meant that retirement communities could not simply share names and contact information of their residents with the students.
So instead, a handful of student volunteers, working in sterile environments, wrote encouraging messages on greeting cards. These were sent in bundles to anonymous recipients in nursing homes and assisted living communities in the Richmond area.
But something was missing in the one-way correspondence project. The goal was to build relationships.
So, last spring, with the assistance of Hobgood and Chuck Alexander, an education administrator at VCU School of Medicine, the students reached out to a number of assisted living communities.
At Lakewood, program manager Courtney Harver was intrigued by the proposal.
“Isolation is a huge, huge issue with older adults,” Harver said, and it can lead to loneliness and depression. During a lockdown, “you’re stuck in your room for 24 hours a day.”
Regular interactions with new people — particularly younger ones — could help, Harver thought. She asked some of her residents if they’d like to participate.
Among those who said yes was Edie Ellis. Now, almost every Friday, Ellis takes a break from hanging out with Cricket, her 12-year-old cocker spaniel, and spends an hour talking by phone with graduate student Kim Arena.
“She’s just a delightful young lady,” said Ellis, 74, a retired health educator.
With 50 years’ difference in age, what do the two women talk about?
“Oh, man, all kinds of stuff,” said Arena, who is pursuing a doctorate in cellular and developmental biology at the University of Virginia and got involved through her boyfriend, a VCU School of Medicine student. “Our families, our backgrounds.”
“Her boyfriend,” added Ellis, with a chuckle.
Friendships for life
Since the start of the pandemic, many facilities, including Lakewood, have seen reduced rates of coronavirus transmission and have relaxed their regulations. Residents can now walk around the grounds and travel outside the facility.
In October, Ellis even met Arena and her boyfriend for lunch at a Richmond sports bar. It was the first time they had seen each other in person. They talked for three hours.
Students say they’ve had a chance to see how important programs like this can be. Participants vow to continue calling, writing and — when it’s safe — visiting.
“We’ve had a really stark reminder of the isolation people can experience in many of these facilities,” said participant Elisabeth Marker, who is earning her pharmacy doctorate at the VCU School of Pharmacy.
Marker learned something else: “When you are helping other people, you are also helped,” she said.
“This project gave us someone else to think about and to focus on. It gave us a way to connect with other people in a time when no one is meeting. People [who are taking part] say, ‘I loved getting to know this person.’”
That’s certainly true of Kerby and student Savioli, who met for the first time in November, then again in December. They plan to meet this month, too.
“I kind of expected this to be something I could be doing as a volunteer — to help someone else,” Savioli said. “I didn’t expect to be making a friend.”