The coronavirus pandemic has been hard on everyone, particularly elderly residents of care homes and their families, who went from enjoying regular visits to waving at each other through a window.
At The Springs Health and Rehabilitation Center at Monarch Landing in Naperville, staff have been doing all they can to brighten residents’ days, most recently with the help of two enterprising young girls who have come up with ways to make virtual connections fun and engaging.
Seventeen-year-old Madison Brown was inspired to do something for older adults by her grandmother, Sheila Brown, who lives there.
“It’s been difficult. My parents and I have always been close to her and we would make a point of visiting and sharing in family time with her very often,” said Madison, who lives in St Charles.
“Once the pandemic began, the only way we could contact her was through phone calls, but even then, the connection felt strained,” she said.
“She lives alone so she was forced to quarantine alone for her own safety. But it’s hard to remain cheerful when your only company is the same four walls that are isolating you from the rest of the world. Whenever we would talk with her on the phone it broke my heart because I could hear how much she was struggling with this separation.”
Madison said she loves hearing her grandmother’s stories.
“I’m very passionate about storytelling and its ability to highlight the powers of words and community in an individual’s life,” she said. “I wanted to create something that could continue and produce long-lasting relationships between volunteers and residents. It hit me: a pen pal program would be the perfect opportunity for committed volunteers and isolated senior citizens.”
Madison founded Letters for Monarch, in which she and her peers send letters to residents in the senior living community and the seniors write back. Teen volunteers are matched with people with similar interests so they have a connection in the letters they exchange.
The letters are typically emailed and then printed for the residents. Not only does this program provide an opportunity for the residents to share their stories, but also gives the teens a way to help others.
“The reality is, teenagers want to help and they want to make a difference, but I think a lot are just not sure how. I want to try and promote programs like this to offer a change of pace for kids; to give them an opportunity to slow down, write a letter, make a friend and maybe even find out a little bit more about themselves in the process,” Madison said.
Once she saw how popular the program was with residents, she grew her volunteer base. There are about 50 teens involved, and they’re not just from the Chicago area but as far away as Brazil and Vietnam, she said.
Connecting the generations is one positive thing to come out of the pandemic, Madison said.
“This virus has caused everyone to be vulnerable and, as a result, more empathetic and charitable,” she said. “We all need someone to reach out to us from time to time to be a light, offer friendship, and provide a positive influence. This virus has amassed great opportunity to do so, and I think the important thing is to maintain these relationships and connections long after the crises that influenced them has passed.”
The good news is Madison is now able to visit her grandmother again as long as they take precautions.
About a dozen of the residents at The Springs also have been enjoying a new program devised by Maya Joshi, a 15-year-old from Chicago.
Lifting Hearts with the Arts matches young people with seniors for virtual face-to-face meetings every week. Together they discuss similar arts interests and hobbies ranging from sing-a-longs, performances, discussions and games.
“The response to our program has been incredible,” Maya said. “The residents love building new friendships and having a chance to do something positive that makes them happy during a trying time.”
She says she’s looking forward to a time when they can all meet in person.
“We want to meet all of the residents and will keep on connecting with them forever,” Maya said.
Emma Dvorak, the life enrichment manager at The Springs, says it’s amazing how many young people want to help the elderly.
“We always welcome new ideas from volunteers,” she said. “We’re always open to virtual volunteers, it’s amazing how much it brightens their day.”
Dvorak admits life has been hard for residents since the pandemic restrictions began back in March.
“We are doing well now we’re getting into a different routine,” she said. “It was such a shock at first not to see family. All their regular routines were taken away from them. Finding other opportunities has been so crucial.”
Dvorak and her team are responsible for organizing activities for Springs’ residents. The unit contains a health center and assisted living accommodations for those who need memory support or short-term rehabilitation. Since the pandemic began, they’ve been restricted in what they can do so they either meet patients one-on-one or arrange virtual visits.
“We’ve held window visits in lounges on floors close to patios, sometimes for birthdays,” Dvorak said. “We’ve work with what we’ve got and what’s safest for our visitors and residents.”
Dvorak started working at Monarch Landing as a teen server in the dining room and has been promoted through the ranks since her college graduation. She said she is thrilled with the commitment and caring the young people have shown.
“It’s amazing; it’s unbelievable that young people want to do this and connect with seniors and volunteer their time in such amazing ways,” she said. “And it means so much to the residents.”