Lifting Hearts With Virtual Friendships
By Julie Pfitzinger for Next Avenue
Part of the IN GOOD COMPANY SPECIAL REPORT
During one of their FaceTime chats last month, June Stevens and her friend Florence swapped stories about the times that each had pulled a similar family prank: Hiding a younger brother in the closet, leading their mothers — who were not too pleased — to conduct a search throughout the house.
June is 14 years old and Florence is in her nineties.
“We were having this moment — she did the same thing to her sibling as I’ve done,” said June.
That moment came during a one-on-one visit between the two friends, as part of Lifting Hearts with the Arts, (LHA), a nonprofit volunteer program operated by Chicago teenagers, including June, who serves as the organization’s secretary and publicist.
Lifting Hearts with the Arts, launched at the beginning of the pandemic, is now offered at 22 Illinois assisted living facilities and senior residences. To date, the 40+ young volunteers have hosted more than 1,000 virtual meetings and experiences, both one-on-one and with groups of 10 or fewer older adults.
From conversations to knitting, to drawing and painting, to language lessons, to game playing, the goal of the LHA team is make friends and share virtual experiences with older adults during an isolating time.
Inspired to Bring Joy
Founder and president Maya Joshi, 15, a sophomore at Walter Peyton College Prep High School in Chicago, was inspired by her own close relationship with her grandparents to start LHA. She and her family were forced to suspend their frequent in-person visits once Chicago’s shelter-in-place order began in March.
“My sister and I started doing video calls with our grandparents and we could see how that brought them so much joy. It made me think that there must be a way to bring that joy to other people, too,” said Maya, whose twin sister, Riya, is LHA’s treasurer.
At that point, with the cancellation of the regular school year, and without the activities they were accustomed to doing, Maya and her friends — all very comfortable with platforms like Zoom and FaceTime — wanted to use those skills to provide companionship and entertainment for older adults in senior residences feeling lonely and missing their own families during lockdown.
In true grassroots fashion, Maya started by looking at websites for assisted living facilities near her, and began eagerly filling out contact forms. But she soon made a discovery.
“I was actually filling out forms for prospective residents. There were questions about my age, and what my health is like,” Maya said with a laugh. “I realized I needed to start contacting activities directors at the facilities instead.”
At Brookdale-Urbana, a senior living residence in Urbana, Ill., visitor restrictions were being imposed right around the time Anna Menendez, the resident program coordinator, received a phone call from Maya. Soon after, LHA volunteers started hosting virtual weekly games with small groups of residents.
“We can only have fewer than 10 residents gathered together, and one of the staff is there to supervise social distancing,” Menendez said of the Thursday afternoon Zoom meetings with the LHA team members. “They all play trivia together or game shows (like “Name That Tune” and “Jeopardy!“) and they love it.”
Due to the pandemic, Brookdale-Urbana residents no longer eat together in the dining room, so not only is spending time with the volunteers from LHA fun for them, it’s also an opportunity to safely see their fellow residents, said Menendez.
Each week, the LHA team sends out a virtual flyer to the facilities they serve about what’s coming up for the week such as games, the occasional music concert or even one-on-one art projects. From there, often with the help of an activities director or another staff member, the residents and volunteers connect.
On the LHA website, the volunteers regularly share photos and updates, as well as short profiles of the residents they are getting to know.
For the past six weeks, approximately 15 residents at The Springs at Monarch Landing in Naperville, Ill. have been connecting in one-on-one conversations, usually via iPad, with members of the LHA team.
“Our residents have had so many things taken away in the past few months, so when Maya contacted us, we thought this sounded like an amazing opportunity,” said Emma Dvorak, its life enrichment manager.
Feedback from the residents (and the number of participants is growing) has been so positive, Dvorak said.
“They enjoy seeing a fresh face, and having someone new to talk to,” she noted. “One gentleman told me after his session, ‘I don’t know anything about [her] because I talked the whole time.’ It gives [residents] the chance to go into different layers of their lives, and they just really enjoy the conversations.”
It’s in those one-on-one virtual conversations where intergenerational friendships are truly forming.
In Maya’s case, she now has a special relationship with a “fellow foodie” named Betty, who is in her eighties. Every Tuesday at 3:30, the two FaceTime and talk about topics ranging from the weather to tacos to French fries with ice cream (“I convinced Betty to try it because it’s one of my favorites, and she liked it,” said Maya) and memories of their childhoods.
“She grew up on a farm in Missouri and I live in the city, so our childhoods were different,” Maya said. “Her grandchildren are twins, and I’m a twin, so we talk about that, too.”
June Stevens, who will be a freshman at Lane Tech High School in Chicago this fall, said she’s learned that the older adults, most of whom are women, like the volunteers to talk about themselves or show photos of themselves with their friends.
“They want to hear our stories, but then they will tell theirs, too,” June said, adding that in addition to her friendship with Florence, she’s also formed a deep connection with Nancy, who is also in her nineties. “It’s so amazing how much they remember from their own childhoods.”
Sometimes, the older residents are quieter and aren’t in the mood to talk much, said Stevens.
“They’ve been through a lot, especially recently, so it’s rewarding when you see that your story about something you’ve been doing makes their day,” she said.
Even for residents who can’t communicate, LHA has offered a boost. “Some of our residents will just sit, watch and listen to a young volunteer play music,” said Dvorak.
Sharing Energy and Positivity
Lifting Hearts with the Arts also accepts donations of used iPads and other devices to distribute to assisted living facilities; many have a limited supply. “Our mission is really to help connect people as easily as possible,” says Maya. Donation information is available on the LHA site.
Recently, it was announced that Chicago Public Schools will start the school year remotely, so some of the LHA team may have to adjust their schedules slightly. But they fully intend to keep their program going.
“I would be upset if I couldn’t meet with my senior friends every week,” said Maya. “We’ll be able to manage this with virtual school because we’ve done that already.”
With a combination of Chicagoland media attention, as well as word of mouth, Maya is hopeful that Lifting Hearts with the Arts will continue to be able to expand into facilities across the country; LHA currently has a few young volunteers from outside the local area, too.
Menendez is amazed by what Maya and the other high school students have been able to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time.
“When she told me how old she is, I couldn’t believe it,” said Menendez, with a laugh. “I’m only ten years older, and I wondered why I didn’t think of doing something like this.”
Unfortunately, times have changed, as has the scope of volunteering, and Menendez is grateful for the energy and positivity that LHA is sharing with older adults.
“This is what coming together in a socially distant society looks like,” she said. “And they are really making the best of it, and bringing joy to the residents.”
Dvorak agrees. “I walked into a resident’s room today, and she was sitting up and ready for me to set up her iPad. She said, ‘It’s time for my appointment. We’re painting today.'”
Julie Pfitzinger is the editor for Next Avenue’s lifestyle coverage across the Living and Technology channels. Her journalism career has included feature writing for the Star-Tribune, as well as several local parenting and lifestyle publications, all in the Twin Cities area. Julie also served as managing editor for nine local community lifestyle magazines.