Grassroots Effort #PandemicPals Addresses Senior Living Loneliness During Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic is producing indelible images from around the world, from uplifting photos of Italians singing together on their balconies while on lockdown, to heartbreaking pictures of makeshift hospital wards and suffering patients. Taking their place in this photo roll of the crisis: Residents quarantined inside senior living communities, visiting with loved ones on the other side of closed windows.

These photos suggest how isolation and loneliness are among the devastating effects of the virus. Residents who can see their loved ones on the other side of a window are lucky that they can even come that close. Senior living providers are doing their best to harness technology to keep residents virtually connected with the world beyond a community’s walls, but even within a building, group activities are curtailed and socialization is hard to maintain.

In an effort to alleviate residents’ loneliness and boredom, Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke is floating an idea for a grassroots effort he’s calling #PandemicPals. He floated the idea on social media last week and has a new column about the concept on the Trib’s website.

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The premise is simple. He’s proposing that people check in with their social networks to see if anyone has a friend or relative in senior living who might appreciate a phone call or some type of social connection. Then, make that call, make that connection.

He’s done it himself already, he told me. After he posted about this idea on Facebook, someone said her father would welcome a conversation with him. That’s how he ended up chatting with a 94-year-old World War II veteran who had been present at the liberation of a concentration camp.

It was a fascinating conversation and an honor to speak with this man, who appreciated the chance to talk, Huppke told me.

Huppke has run the idea of #PandemicPals by some senior housing and care providers, and so he is aware of logistical concerns on their part. I reached out to Vi Living, based here in Chicago; a Vi exec echoed some of the concerns that Huppke has been hearing.

One issue is privacy, particularly if providers would need to furnish residents’ phone numbers, Vi’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing David Egeland told me via email. The possibility that residents will become confused is another possible pitfall.

“I know that my own 84-year-old mom loves hearing from me twice a day now (as compared to my usual 2-3 calls per week); however, if it were some random person calling her she would be very suspect,” Egeland wrote. “I think that a lot of seniors have their antennae up for fraudulent phone calls, and I think this would be difficult to overcome with some random person calling our residents.”

Huppke is sensitive to these worries. He thinks that if connections are made via people reaching out to their own, trusted networks, that would be an organic way of “vetting.” Still, he knows that #PandemicPals as he has conceived of it may not be feasible on any kind of grand scale — nonetheless, he sees merit in the idea. After all, Chicagoans and people around the country are working from home, running fewer errands, no longer going to children’s sports events, no longer going to parties and other social gatherings. In other words, they’ve got time.

“If a few phone calls a day will help somebody, great, and it’ll help me as well,” he said.

Regardless of whether #PandemicPals takes off, Huppke’s efforts to draw attention to the plight of residents who are feeling isolated and lonely — and his creativity in trying to help — should offer a welcome reminder to senior living providers that in this time of crisis, even as they work overtime in isolated buildings, they are not alone.

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