Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With video calls and an army of volunteers, this 15-year-old is battling pandemic loneliness in nursing homes

Anne, left, and Helen use a tablet that was donated to the Artis Senior Living of Huntingdon Valley home in Pennsylvania by the nonprofit Brighten A Day. (Brandi Barksdale/Artis Senior Living of Huntingdon Valley)

When the coronavirus pandemic left elderly residents in long-term care facilities largely cut off from their families and the outside world in early March, Hita Gupta got to work. Channeling the resources and volunteers of a nonprofit she founded in 2018, Gupta, 15, of Pennsylvania, started sending letters, cards and care packages to senior homes nationwide, even reaching some facilities in the United Kingdom and Canada.

Her efforts garnered her widespread media attention and positive feedback poured in from recipients. But Gupta didn’t think the efforts went far enough. While letters and cards are a kind gesture that research has suggested can have a positive impact on mental health, they are “one-sided communication,” the high school junior said.

“That cannot be matched by a real-time conversation with a senior, a real conversation where both sides are learning and they’re building a bond,” said Gupta, who until March had been volunteering on the weekends at a senior living facility near her home in Paoli, a Philadelphia suburb. “Being able to speak with someone who’s having a hard time . . . who’s experiencing isolation and loneliness, being able to ease some of that tension, I think that’s so important.”

Who needs another Zoom call? Why sending letters might help your loved ones.

Drawing inspiration from the regular Skype sessions she has with her grandparents, who live in India, Gupta started offering another service to the eldercare centers: video calls with volunteers from her nonprofit, Brighten A Day. The organization has also been collecting and donating camera-enabled devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops to facilities in need, allowing residents more opportunities to virtually connect with their loved ones in addition to volunteers.

During the pandemic, the virtual interactions have emerged as a complement to more traditional efforts to reach out to seniors, which have mostly focused on written communication.

“It’s ingenious,” said Robert Roca, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s council on geriatric psychiatry. “Somebody expressing interest, somebody prepared to listen, the experience of having somebody reach out to you, even if it’s not a person you know well, there’s something very powerful about that in restoring the morale of somebody who’s demoralized by loneliness.”

Isolated and at risk: Twelve nursing home and assisted-living residents share what life has been life since the pandemic began

And that demoralization is being felt by many residents of long-term care facilities. Roca said a number of his patients in such communities are “very unhappy about the level of isolation imposed on them.”

Research has shown that social isolation and loneliness can “trigger a cascade” of reactions in the brain and body, said Brian Carpenter, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“They are experiences that trigger a stress response, and that stress response leads to a series of neurological and biochemical changes that are not good for the body over the long term,” said Carpenter, who specializes in working with older adults.

Several studies in recent years have found correlations between loneliness and adverse health outcomes, suggesting it may be comparable to other risks, including obesity and smoking.

Loneliness can damage health, triggering inflammation and neurological changes

Though there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all solution” to combating loneliness, Roca emphasized the benefits of feeling connected. And for many older adults who have been isolated amid the pandemic, video calls have emerged as a “lifeline,” he said.

“For a lot of people, electronic connections are maybe not everything they would ask for, but they certainly are better than the alternative of not having contact,” he said.

In recent months, Gupta said her nonprofit has provided about 70 devices to eldercare centers in several states and at least one facility in Canada. In addition to purchasing devices, Brighten A Day has received donations from the community, including 100 e-readers and video-enabled tablets from Amazon. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

About 100 volunteers have signed up to participate in calls, Gupta said. Interested facilities receive a spreadsheet listing information about the volunteers, such as their hobbies and what languages they speak, to help match them with residents. Volunteers also go through an orientation that provides guidelines for how to act during a call and tips for facilitating an engaging conversation.

Geriatrician and epidemiologist XinQi Dong emphasized the importance of ensuring the quality of the interactions.

“We’re all on Skype and Zoom and Webex calls for hours, and we just tune out,” said Dong, director of the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University. “Is that really quality connectedness? I would say no.” Yet, Dong said, it is possible to “have a 15-, 20-minute intense discussion with someone where you feel very psychologically and socially satisfied.”

For isolated older people, pandemic is ‘a cruel event at this time in our lives’

Brandi Barksdale, director of life enrichment at a memory-care facility in Pennsylvania, said four of her residents have been speaking weekly with volunteers from Brighten A Day for several months. The facility received a donated tablet in May, Barksdale said.

“Every time our residents talk to one of the volunteers, they’re like overjoyed afterward and that’s all they can talk about,” said Barksdale, who works at Artis Senior Living of Huntingdon Valley.

Brighten A Day volunteer Dan Klein, 36, of Chesterbrook, Pa., said he chatted with the residents from Huntingdon Valley this month. The group had a lively talk that included discussions about wine and marriage, Klein said.

“It makes me very happy,” said Helen, 83, one of the residents participating in the calls, whose last name is not being published to protect her privacy. “It makes me glad to be here.”

Klein added that he wished the call, which lasted about 30 minutes, could have gone on longer. “They were just so happy, just to talk to someone who was new to them,” he said.

Meanwhile, Jackie Kaminski, 21, has been video-chatting with the same resident at Berkeley Springs Center in West Virginia since the beginning of July. The pair talk over Zoom every week, Kaminski said, adding that she was recently able to celebrate her resident’s birthday with him.

“It did take time . . . to have him open up,” said Kaminski, a senior at Indiana University. But now, they talk about his family and childhood, and he gives her advice on things happening in her life. “We have a great rapport,” she added. “We have this relationship.”

These conversations can help elderly people in long-term care facilities feel like they are valuable, said Eleanor Feldman Barbera, an expert on aging and mental health based in New York. One of the stages of life, Barbera said, is to “feel like you’re giving to the next generation.”

“Being able to talk to other people, younger people and talk about your life and feel like you’re passing on your wisdom can be a great way of feeling like you’re still accomplishing things and that your years are a benefit to somebody else,” she said. “It’s esteemable.”