Feeling lonely? USFSP volunteer program pairs students with seniors to help each other

Every Thursday at 4 p.m., Alexis Naguib, a sophomore at USF St. Petersburg, looks forward to talking on the phone with her “Tele-buddy.” But Naguib is not talking to a fellow student, or even someone her own age. Instead, she’s connecting with a senior more than 50 years older.

According to Caryn Nesmith, special projects coordinator for the Regional Chancellor’s Office, USFSP wanted to find a way for students to still feel connected after the university closed its campus and transitioned to online classes only. 

Research shows that students who feel more connected with their college do better academically and are more apt to graduate.

At the same time, Nesmith says the university was aware of concerns that many seniors might be feeling lonely and isolated from their families and friends because of COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. 

USFSP launched St. Pete Friends in early summer as a way to support both students and serve the community. “We thought the intergenerational component of connecting students and seniors was unique and would give both an opportunity to learn from each other,” says Nesmith.

Naguib is one of about 25 USFSP students participating in the program. Students have a choice to volunteer with one of three agencies: Seniors in Service, the Area Agency on Aging of Pinellas and Pasco, or Neighborly Care Network. Each agency offers a slightly different program.

Naguib is volunteering with Seniors in Service, which already had a TelePals program in place with volunteers making regular “telephone reassurance” phone calls to lonely seniors. The goal of the program is to help seniors stay socially connected.

“We started our TelePals program in April of last year and weren’t exactly sure how it would ramp up,” says Robin Ingles, CEO of Seniors in Service of Tampa Bay. “It was still kind of small. But then when COVID hit, the community outpouring was incredible. People who were suddenly home wanted to find ways to help. We were amazed and humbled.”

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, loneliness and social isolation place seniors at higher risk for both physical and emotional challenges, including high blood pressure and heart disease, obesity, cognitive decline, depression, and anxiety.

“I was a little nervous calling at first,” says Naguib. “The first five minutes were awkward, but now it is like having a friend. We’ve gotten really emotionally attached. 

“The woman I’m paired with was a scuba diving instructor and has traveled to these really beautiful places,” she adds. “It’s nice to hear about other people’s stories and experiences, especially from someone who has lived so much longer than me.”

Chelsea Hammerton, a USFSP junior majoring in psychology, is also volunteering with Seniors in Service and finds the TelePals program very rewarding.

“I was prepared to commit to the program for three months, but honestly, the way our conversations are going, there is no need for it to come to a close any time soon,” says Hammerton. “We have had really great conversations ever since the first phone call. She’s a very interesting woman and the time flies. We’re supposed to schedule hourly calls, but most of the time our calls stretch to at least an hour-and-a-half. There’s a lot for us to talk about.”

Seniors in Service interviews both the senior and the volunteer to get an idea of their general background, hobbies, interests, and life experiences before finding the right match. “We want to build a bridge and match them in a way that makes the most sense,” says Ingles.

The agency also trains the volunteers in how to conduct the phone calls, how to keep the conversation fun and engaging, how to be a good listener, and other best practices for “proper senior telephone etiquette.”

“There was a lot of support -- I got an email going over the guidelines, and then a handbook and training video to watch and a follow-up phone call to answer any questions,” says Hammerton.

Letter writers find connections too

Emily Carter isn’t making phone calls. She’s been writing letters through Neighborly Care Network, which distributes them to seniors through the agency’s Meals on Wheels program.

“My letters have reached over 60 diverse people who have been struggling with isolation these past few months,” says Carter, who adds poetry and drawings to each letter. 

“I like knowing that people are being positively impacted by something I wrote for them,” adds Carter. “It may seem small to some, but a letter can make a big impact on the person on the other side. During times of struggle, no one should feel alone. I enjoy helping people and spreading love and kindness in hopes that they will return the favor by passing it on to others.”

Kenneth Eshe is pursuing a master’s degree in accounting and works full-time. He doesn’t have a lot of extra time but wanted to find a small way to contribute so he signed up to participate with the Area Agency on Aging.  

As a phone volunteer, he reached out to a list of 20 seniors, asking each one how they were doing and what services they might need, from help grocery shopping to essential items like toilet paper.

“We had a script to work from,” says Eshe.  “It was our job to find out what the clients’ needs were, but also to let them know someone was looking out for them.” 

The USFSP St. Pete Friends program is small but meaningful, says Nesmith. How long it will continue depends on the agencies’ needs going forward and the demand for their services from area seniors.

But Ingles says she sees no end in sight.

“Although we’re currently not getting as many seniors referred to our services because home health agencies haven’t been going into people’s homes and case managers at the hospitals have been very busy, don’t think for a second that there are fewer isolated elders who need support,” says Ingles. “Whenever everything comes back online, we expect we’ll be deluged for help.”
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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.