As COVID-19 continues to upset routine interactions, Queen’s is addressing the health effects of social isolation on senior citizens.
Organized by Queen’s alumnus and expert in elder law Laura Tamblyn Watts, ArtSci ’94, and the University’s Office of Advancement, the resulting initiative is the Queen’s Community Connections Project (QCCP), an organization which pairs alumni over the age of 70 with a student volunteer between the ages of 18 and 24.
“We are always engaging our alumni and looking for ideas, and Ms. Tamblyn Watts came forward with this amazing idea. We embraced it and brought it to life,” said Gage Benyon, Annual Leadership and Giving coordinator in the Office of Advancement, in an interview with The Journal.
More than 100 students have signed up to volunteer since the establishment of the program, providing regular check-ins with a provided list of alumni. This is no small feat according to Benyon, as there are upwards of 10,000 alumni over the age of 70 in the contacting pool.
The research conducted by Tamblyn Watts found social isolation is nearly as dangerous for older people as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. However, additional research concluded the pairing of older alumni and student volunteers has seen the mental and physical wellbeing of both demographics significantly increased.
“As soon as she contacted us, we created the crash course and mapped out a lot of great ideas, coming with lots of resources for our students,” Benyon said. “[We discussed] how we were going to hire our students in a careful and efficient manner.”
Benyon, responsible for managing student volunteers, has been a factor in the success
of the initiative.
“My main role is to hire students, facilitate all of their training and confidentiality agreements, and find them their list of alumni to call, dispatching any questions to an appropriate resource,” Benyon explained.
According to Benyon, the pairing list can depend on several factors, with alumni able to call multiple times a week if both parties are willing. The success of the alumnus-student connection is owed to shared commonalities between the individuals who have been matched.
When students sign up, they’re asked to provide their degree information and extracurricular activities like student government, sports, and AMS clubs or organizations. Utilizing alumni records, the initiative has been able to discover what activities alumni were involved in and match them accordingly to student volunteers.
“[This ensures] that alumni are able to make a great connection with the student, and the student is able to establish a strong bond,” Benyon said. “I spoke to one of our student volunteers matched with an alumnus who was actively involved in linguistics, and they were able to have a great conversation about career choices and what the alum did with her life.”
Benyon explained the most meaningful connections arise when both parties are able to get something out of the experience and are able to have several conversations a week about shared interests.
Though the program has only been in effect for a few weeks, Benyon has found the initiative has seen very strong results.
“On average, the alumni are interested in receiving calls at least once a week from the students, which is really great because it means they have someone to talk to,” Benyon said. “We are really proud of our students to have been able to come forward and make connections and ensure that our alumni family is taken care of.”
Over the summer, the QCCP is looking to hire additional students. Benyon said the program is more than happy to take any volunteers who are interested and willing to participate.
With such a vast pool of alumni to call, ensuring each alumnus receives a call on a weekly basis requires the QCCP to have a broad scale of volunteers that regularly connect with the senior Queen’s population.
Discussions are underway concerning whether the QCCP will continue after the physical distancing measures have been lifted.
“It would be fantastic if we could keep continuing to have these conversations,” Benyon said. “Just because someone is currently isolated during COVID-19 does not mean they are not experiencing isolation on a regular basis outside of these exceptional circumstances. They may not have family who are taking care of them and being able to continue that connection with students would be ideal.”
Alumni, Covid-19, Student experience
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