As the membership and advocacy manager for Senior Planet, Pamela Hugi is used to reaching out to people, explaining the mission of the organization and its benefits, such as staying connected with technology or, for the late bloomers, learning how to connect to it.
Then came March…and the lockdown.
“The pandemic provided a new set of challenges,” says Hugi. No kidding!
That challenge triggered a new program—Senior Planet’s Stay Connected program. Hugi sent out a survey to 240 members, asking them if they had internet access and if they would be interested in participating. Basically an antidote to isolation, she would match up people who might want to have a phone chat, do Zoom, or email some friendly updates—whatever they wanted to do to stay connected.
“We hope that people would use this as a resource and use this other person as a way to stay connected,” she said. “The goal is to also potentially build a new relationship—one that will outlast the pandemic. We are hoping for people to just have somebody to talk to if that’s what they need,” Hugi notes.
Not only the lonely
Her corps of people aren’t just the isolated. “They might not be experiencing isolation themselves,” points out Hugi – respondents were as likely to want to make a phone call to someone else as to receive one.
Longtime Senior Planet member Barbara Lewers has volunteered at Senior Planet in New York City for several years and signed onto the program to reach out. She’s since struck up a phone relationship with a woman who lives across town. “I called and said, ‘Hi! I’m Barbara from Senior Planet, we are calling to see how our members are doing.” From there, she says, “it just flowed.”
She and her phone friend have talked at least 5 times in the past few months, each time chatting for about an hour. “I know she is isolated,” Lewers says. “…and it makes me feel I’m doing something good.”
Marilyn Eagan, a Senior Planet member in Plattsburgh, NY, decided to join the program and has been emailing with another member. “She emails about her garden, and watching birds in her garden,” Eagan says, “I’ve always been the type to check in on others; I like staying in touch with people.” Eagan had just started going to the Senior Planet center for an exercise class when the pandemic shut it down, so email talks are another way to stay connected.
Corporations catch on
Healthcare professionals see the value of staying connected—or striking up new connections during this isolating time. Cigna Corporation, a global health service company, just launched a pilot program to increase social connectivity among its Medicare Advantage members. Cigna representatives reach out to Medicare members, helping to monitor their health and well being and ask about daily needs such as food, housing and transportation. Members can choose to get a followup call from the same Cigna rep, which personalizes the experience.
Cigna also worked with Senior Planet Colorado to give 100 iPads to residents of the Denver Housing Authority, who were extremely grateful, and have been using them to stay connected to their family and communities. “My grandchild couldn’t do their homework or school with me, and now they can,” one recipient wrote in.
With the pandemic shutdowns, “there is not a natural way to connect with others,” says Jessy Warner-Cohen, PhD, MPH, senior psychologist at Northwell Health. For those older adults who might be wary of joining such programs, she tells them: “The most difficult step is the first one. Taking the step to reach out, taking the call is the most difficult part. ” She suggests asking yourself: “What would be the worst that could happen? You don’t connect, you don’t talk again.”
Bottom line? “It’s a low risk endeavor that could have a high impact,” Warner-Cohen says.
Want to join the Stay Connected Program? Email [email protected]