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Bridging the generation gap during the pandemic and beyond

Area teens who are technologically savvy, forward-thinking, and caring are taking the time and effort to bridge generations during the pandemic. This has been particularly evident and heartwarming at The Springs Health Care and Rehabilitation Center at Monarch Landing senior living community in Naperville. With group activities being limited in the interest of social distancing during COVID-19, the teens’ efforts are helping to keep residents engaged and active, greatly alleviating their isolation.

Lifting Hearts With Arts
Maya Joshi, a 16-year-old resident of Chicago, created Lifting Hearts With the Arts. The student at Walter Payton College Prep says she was inspired during the early days of the lockdown by her grandparents, who missed their family visits and felt lonely. Joshi researched and reached out to Chicago-area senior living communities to identify those that may be interested in participating in her initiative. Emma Dvorak, life enrichment manager at The Springs, was excited to learn about the program, which connects teen volunteers with residents for regularly scheduled Zoom, Skype, or Facetime meetings.

The process begins as young volunteers and seniors are carefully and thoughtfully matched up for their weekly interactions, taking into consideration mutual hobbies and interests. The focus is ideally on the arts, including visual, performing, language, and culinary arts, and the interactions often include sing-alongs, performances, chats, demos, reminiscing and more.  “The meetings are really tailored to the residents’ interests, preferences, and abilities,” says Dvorak.

Each session is scheduled ahead of time, and Dvorak reports, “it’s great to see residents looking forward to their personal ‘appointments.’” Some residents require assistance with the technology, which Dvorak’s team provides. Others are able to meet with their students independently. “It’s been tough providing opportunities for socialization during the pandemic, so connecting with someone else on the outside is amazing for the residents,” Dvorak says.

Joshi first started recruiting volunteers among her family and friends, gradually attracting more than 125 across the country. When the program first began at the start of the pandemic, she says, “a lot of the volunteers were staying at home and wanting to do something to help others but not quite knowing what to do. They love meeting new people and regularly do video calls with friends anyway. So, it seemed to be a natural and fun thing to use this platform with people who are completely different than us.”

Lifting Hearts with the Arts is now in more than 30 senior living communities. “The feedback has been amazing. Residents love having the event and someone to talk to on a regular schedule. It gives them a way to meet new people without leaving their apartments. The friendship we’ve made will go on forever. When we can go back to normal, we want to meet all of the residents and will keep on connecting with them,” Joshi says.

When Joshi realized that some senior living communities could not participate in Lifting Hearts With the Arts because of limited technology, the group decided to become a not-for-profit organization, raising funds to support the program within the communities. For additional information, including GoFundMe, Amazon Tech Wishlist, used device donations, and more, visit LiftingHeartsWithTheArts.org.

Letters for Monarch
Seventeen-year-old Madison Brown of St. Charles was similarly motivated to do something for older adults by her grandmother, who is a resident at Monarch Landing.  At the beginning of the pandemic, Brown’s family was limited to visiting her grandmother via telephone visits.  “The calls go on for hours, and my favorite parts are when she lapses into stories from her past,” Brown says. “I’m very passionate about storytelling and its ability to highlight the powers of words and community in an individual’s life. I wanted to create something that could continue and produce long-lasting relationships between volunteers and residents.”

Brown decided that an email pen pal program would be the perfect opportunity for committed volunteers and isolated senior citizens. She founded Letters for Monarch. Teen volunteers are matched with seniors at The Springs with similar interests. They then connect through letters that they exchange. Using the wonders of modern technology, the letters are typically emailed and then printed for the residents. This program provides an opportunity for the residents to share their stories while also helping give 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” says Brown.

She first enlisted her friends to help her and then started using AllForGood.org to recruit more volunteers. Brown carefully screens candidates and, in doing so, says that she’s been able to meet great people around the world. To date, she has approximately 50 teens, not only from the Chicago area but also from New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, Texas, Washington, and even as far away as the Philippines, Brazil, and Vietnam.

“In the future, I would love to see kids more empowered and confident in themselves through volunteer opportunities like these. I ultimately want them to know that they can have the power to provide hope and be a light in their communities,” Brown says.

Madison notes that connecting the generations is one positive thing coming out of the pandemic. “This virus has caused everyone to be vulnerable and, as a result, more empathetic and charitable. 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 crisis that influenced them has passed.”

Dvorak, who started working at Monarch Landing as a teen server in the dining room and has been promoted through the ranks since her college graduation, is thrilled with the commitment and caring of the young people.

“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. And it means so much to the residents,” she says.

As seen in Chicago Tribune Primetime