Kathryn Tian '22 and Andrew Li '22 decided to launch CARE in response to the social isolation many seniors face during the pandemic.
Kathryn Tian '22 and Andrew Li '22 decided to launch CARE in response to the social isolation many seniors face during the pandemic.

Reinventing Senior CARE Amid a Pandemic

Two Harvard undergraduates are attempting to remedy the crushing isolation facing many people living in senior care centers during the pandemic.
By Felicia Y. Ho and Vera E. Petrovic

Posters forbidding visitors plaster the walls. Common spaces are empty, no longer full of grandchildren and laughter. The rise and fall of conversation among residents has disappeared.

In senior care centers, only silence and waiting remain during the COVID-19 crisis.

One of the populations most at risk for developing a severe COVID-19 infection, the CDC has advised seniors in particular to self-quarantine at home and avoid social contact. For long-term senior care centers, this often translates to a necessary ban on all visitors, including family, and a requirement that residents maintain adequate social distancing with friends within the center. With these meaningful social connections largely eliminated, many seniors say loneliness is more prevalent than ever.

Following the conclusion of classes in May, Kathryn Tian ’22 visited her grandmother, who has Alzeihmer’s, in the nursing home where she lives. She recalls “listening to a lot of the employees talk about how they’re struggling with providing programs to get people to communicate with others.” At that time, she and Andrew Li ’22 were seeking ways to help their communities amid the pandemic. Li remembers feeling that they were “stuck at home… stranded and powerless.”

In response, Tian and Li decided to launch a program they called Connecting All, Reaching Everyone (CARE) to provide support for seniors in nursing homes. CARE brings together two groups on the ends of the generational spectrum — seniors and college students — in an effort to create meaningful virtual relationships. The program’s general structure consists of two students meeting with a senior on a weekly or biweekly basis for 30 minutes to an hour over Zoom or by phone. At the end of each meeting, students and seniors write a reflection about their experience. Nursing home staff can read these reflections from residents and understand what additional resources they should provide, such as more convenient grocery shopping.

While virtual meetings are the only way to safely bridge the gap between seniors and students during a pandemic, some participants have struggled with CARE’s technology-centric design.

“One of our primary challenges is navigating technology barriers,” Li says. “A lot of seniors in the Boston area don’t have access to computers, tablets, phones, or even WiFi.” The CARE website provides instructions on how to set up Zoom or Google Meet, but Li says disparate access to technology remains a key limitation to the program.

Despite these obstacles, Tian and Li are encouraged by CARE’s small successes. Tian, for example, spent the summer in contact with an elderly woman who had contracted COVID-19. The woman was forced to self-isolate from her friends and family but said that CARE kept her feeling connected to the outside world.

“She just felt a lot of comfort in getting to talk to people,” Tian says, adding that the sense of connection extended both ways. She explains that students often forget “how relatable seniors can be to [younger generations],” and she is often struck by how engaging and pertinent conversations with seniors feel. The idea that both senior participants and student volunteers have something valuable to give to each other is at the core of Tian and Li’s vision for the program.

As for CARE’s future after the pandemic, Tian and Li say they intend to lay the framework for a larger program that serves seniors across the country. They plan to coordinate with multiple Department of Veterans Affairs branches to pair elderly veterans with student volunteers. Tian and Li also hope to bring awareness to the lack of exposure seniors have to technology and provide tools and resources to educate older populations about communicating online.

“We hope that by fostering these intergenerational connections on both ends, we will feel like we’ve learned much more about the other,” Li says. “We’re more powerful than we think. We can do a lot, we can make a big difference, and we can have a genuine impact on peoples’ lives.”

— Staff writer Felicia Y. Ho can be reached at felicia.ho@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @HoPanda007.

— Staff writer Vera E. Petrovic can be reached at vera.petrovic@thecrimson.com.

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