‘Just talk to somebody’: UNC students call local senior citizens during quarantine

‘Just talk to somebody’: UNC students call local senior citizens during quarantine

Read in The Daily Tar Heel 3/23/19

UNC senior Mary McCall Leland said Phone-A-Friend is about appreciating the right here, right now. 

The program connects student volunteers with seniors in retirement homes for a 30-minute phone call each day. 

“We’re all experiencing this phenomenon and, as UNC students, I’m sure many people are feeling the need to be productive and want to use energy on things that make traction,” Leland said. “Scrolling endlessly through Instagram or watching another documentary on Netflix doesn’t really fill that for you.”

The Phone-A-Friend program was started by UNC PharmD candidate Diana Lee in response to COVID-19 social distancing. She said she wanted to find a way to help during this time.

Lee said she has since reached out to senior living facilities in Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham and recruited over 70 undergraduate and graduate volunteers. 

“I thought it would be nice if we could just talk to somebody, and it would be nice to talk to somebody who is feeling more isolated than I am,” Lee said. “I am privileged to still have social contact with my classmates through Zoom, but I know other people are not as fortunate.”

UNC MBA student Alex Brandwein said he sees Phone-A-Friend as a learning opportunity. He said with all the stress and anxiety surrounding COVID-19, it is vital that people in the Orange County community focus on communication. 

He also said it’s important to let people know that they are valued. 

“Whatever nuggets that I can pick up from them that I can absorb, learn from and gain from their experiences is really valuable in the long-term,” Brandwein said.  

Junior chemistry major and student volunteer Anthony Schinelli said he looks forward to building community, especially with an elderly population that might not have visitors often.

“They have so much to tell you about their lives, and what it’s like to grow up in a different time,” he said. “There’s a lot of wisdom to share I think. I’m definitely looking forward to connecting with them — making new friends.”

The collective sense of grief on the sudden pandemic lifestyle shift, Leland said, makes the need for connection even more pressing. She said she is excited to focus on others, instead of feeling alone in quarantine. 

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the concentric circles of grief, and how, when something impacts us, it’s really hard to understand what someone else is going through unless you have personally gone through it,” Leland said. 

Leland said giving students the opportunity to have phone conversations with senior residents is an investment in human connection. 

“As a senior in spring semester, I’ve been thinking a lot about why college is so great, why we don’t only have online classes for a significantly reduced price — and why it isn’t all college all the time,” she said. “Part of it is this human-to-human interaction, whether it’s tradition or shared experiences, meals or extracurriculars.” 

Although the program was built out of COVID-19 social distancing, Lee said she hopes that the connections students build last longer than the pandemic. She said participants from Phone-a-Friend will likely develop solid relationships through their daily phone conversations and that the program has the potential to be sustained in the future. 

But Leland is still focused on today. 

“We are self-quarantining for them,” she said of the senior residents. “Hopefully finding these little pockets of getting to see why we’re doing this could change some people’s mindsets from thinking about the future to thinking about today — because that’s all we really have.”