The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The cure for pandemic loneliness? Friends of a different generation.

A resident is in a reading room at the Goodwin House on July 16 in Alexandria, Va. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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In June 2020, nearly four months into the covid-19 pandemic, I was introduced to my partner’s great-aunt Deb. Aunt Deb — Deborah Berlinger Eiferman — is 98 years old and lives on the Hudson River north of New York City. My partner told me that Deb had watched my TED talk about my “quarter-life crisis” and wanted to meet me. When we did, she told me that she was the happiest she had ever been in her life. “I’m on three Zooms a day,” she explained. “I’m listening to music. I’m writing a book. I’m taking a Bible class. A breath, body, and mind class. I’m going to concerts without having to arrange for transportation.”

The pandemic had given her the ability to connect with the world and keep learning without having to leave the house — something that isn’t easy when you’re in your 90s. I was struck by her positive outlook, especially since her sister’s husband had just passed away from covid-19 a few weeks before. “This is my third epidemic,” Deb told me, describing her experiences surviving scarlet fever when she was 5 years old and then living through the polio epidemic. “I’m one grateful aunt. I feel very positive about aging.”

When Deb’s husband of more than 64 years, Irving Eiferman, died in 2012, she made a pact to form friendships only with people younger than she was. Deb was onto something. A study by Michelle Carlson, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, found that after six months of tutoring young students, older adults had “improved brain and cognitive function.”

Research from Washington University in St. Louis and John Hopkins University School of Medicine shows that intergenerational volunteering is good for older people’s mental health and physical functioning (including improved mobility, stamina, and flexibility). A meta-analysis of 16 studies, published by Mikaela B von Bonsdorff and Taina Rantanen in “Aging Clinical and Experimental Research,” showed that volunteering in old age predicted better self-rated health, functioning, physical activity and life satisfaction, as well as decreased depression and mortality.

Psychiatrist George Valliant led Harvard’s “Study of Adult Development,” the longest-running longitudinal study of mental and physical well-being, which began tracking a group of male Harvard sophomores in 1937. The study found that older adults who were masters of “generativity” (investing in, caring for and developing the next generation) were three times as likely to be happy as those who were not.

The pandemic exposed a painful truth: America doesn’t care about old people

“Someone who connects with different generations is being more socially active, and that engagement promotes healthy aging,” says Kasley Killam, who received her master’s degree in public health at the Harvard School of Public Health and specializes in social health and solutions for the “loneliness epidemic.” “Intergenerational friendship engenders a sense of purpose and meaning no matter your age. It’s valuable for older adults who’ve lost their social networks at work and may be isolated for the first time; it’s a way to stay involved and contribute. And younger people can learn from elders’ experiences and perspectives.”

Loneliness has increased to alarmingly high levels in recent years — especially among young people. Harvard’s Graduate School of Education found that 61 percent of young people (ages 18 to 25) reported serious loneliness during the pandemic.

According to Cigna’s survey of 10,000 U.S. adults in 2019, 61 percent of Americans are lonely, with 70 percent of Millennials and 80 percent of Gen-Z feeling lonely. A 2017 meta-analysis of 70 studies encompassing 3.4 million people, by psychologist and researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues, found that loneliness is highest among adolescents and young adults, as well as older adults.

Researchers Maike Luhmann and Louise C. Hawkley note that loneliness levels tend to peak in young adulthood (before age 30), diminish through “middle adulthood” (ages 30 to 65) and “early old age” (65 to 80), before gradually increasing and surpassing young adult levels at “oldest old age” (older than 80).

The intergenerational friendship movement, which seeks, in part, to address this convergence, had been gaining momentum long before the pandemic. For example, the Intergenerational Learning Center, established in Seattle in 1991, offers programs for children at a place that is also home to more than 400 older adults.

But one legacy of the pandemic could be creating more opportunities for young adults to bond with their elders, connections that could play an important role as we work to reimagine elder care in the United States. The on-demand assistance service Papa pairs older adults and families with “Papa Pals” for companionship and assistance with everyday tasks.

Goodnight Zoom provides remote storytelling with an isolated senior. Meals Together is creating companionship through intergenerational dinner parties over video calls. Big & Mini is a software tool launched during the pandemic that connects people virtually to combat social isolation and bridge the generation gap; after you create a profile, you get matched with a “Big” or a “Mini” for a phone or video call.

During quarantine, Deb’s synagogue connected her with an 18-year-old woman named Tali Safran, who had recently graduated from high school in New Jersey. Tali was feeling a little bored with her classmates and wanted to do something to help out during the pandemic, so she asked a teacher if she could talk to an older person. Deb and Tali started talking twice a week on the phone, found it mutually beneficial, and enjoyed it so much that they decided to meet in person on Deb’s outdoor terrace — taking appropriate precautions.

Deb also joined a faith group begun by her synagogue that organized intergenerational groups of eight people to call each other once a week during quarantine. Every Friday, her neighbors — a younger couple — came over (with masks on) to bring her long-stem roses.

Covid awakened Americans to the elder care crisis. Now comes the hard part.

On Dec. 31, 2020, Deb celebrated New Year’s Eve (and her 98th birthday), staying up until midnight, wearing a birthday hat, and on a Zoom call with 20 family members spread across the country. Deb was clearly living her best life at 98 years old during a pandemic, thanks in part to the intergenerational connection in her life.

Like Tali, I found that developing a friendship with Deb added meaning and perspective to my life during such a hard year. Deb taught me to appreciate what I have. If Deb was making the best of pandemic life, maybe I could, too.

As more people get vaccinated and life slowly returns to normal-ish this summer, Killam told me that connecting with elders in your community doesn’t have to be a dramatic initiative; it’s about taking one small action. Whether you volunteer through a local elder-care organization, use an online tool designed to foster intergenerational connection, reach out regularly to your grandparents or your great aunt (or your partner’s great aunt!), organize a backyard potluck, leave a note in a neighbor’s mailbox, or bring a neighbor long-stem roses, there is power in spending more time with those older (and younger) than you.