There may be a span of 50 years or more between them, but Dorothy and Samantha have bonded over tea and cookies for more than two years, thanks to LINKages, a non-profit group in Calgary, which has been working for some time to connect young people with lonely seniors. The program is in great demand, especially at this holiday time of year when many seniors have nowhere to go and no one to visit them.
Dorothy, who is in her mid-eighties, came to the notice of LINKages after she had experienced several losses in her life and was feeling increasingly isolated. Samantha, a 15 year-old high school student, was hoping to make a difference to her community, and volunteered for the program. Both are benefitting from the friendship and learning much from each other. Samantha often does small, but hugely meaningful things for Dorothy, such as recently decorating Dorothy’s walker with Christmas bells and streamers.
I recently spoke on the phone with the Director of LINKages, Debra Armstrong. “Our work resonates the most with people who are starting to go through losses – a spouse, their home, their physical abilities…. In the winter months, and over the holiday season, they become increasingly isolated. It could be days before they speak to someone. So, having a young friend visit regularly means they can tell their story – feel valued for the life they have led – and have a reason to get out of bed. It does so much for their sense of self worth. Bringing a youthful enthusiasm into their home makes them feel alive again.”
I asked Armstrong how she recruits the young people to team up with the older citizens. “We do presentations to students in Junior High and High Schools, as well as to universities. We take volunteers from ages 12 – 24. This program often helps them figure out their career choices. We had to turn away over 500 youth because so many wanted to be involved. It resonates with kids who are still figuring out who they are. This program provides them with an opportunity to do something meaningful. It also seems to have a hand in keeping them engaged in school. They have someone they can talk to who listens and is non-judgmental.”
A recent article in the Vancouver Sun on intergenerational relationships cites a study from Boston College that bears out Armstrong’s findings. Several hundred grandparents and grandchildren who regularly visited one another were studied. The results showed a definite health link, with fewer cases of depression and better mental health for both age groups…
Another study found that “people with weak social connections were found to die at much higher rates than their counterparts, according to research by Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which collected data from 148 different studies. The same researchers found that prolonged loneliness could be as bad for your lifespan as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
On one hand it’s hard to imagine how anyone can be lonely in our social media, high-tech world, yet on the other, face to face conversation seems to be getting ever more elusive. According to the American Sociological Review, friendships are declining in the USA, and, I imagine, the same is true in Canada. Families and longtime friends are often not together in the same community, but spread out over the country. Visiting over Skype is better than no connection, but it does not offer the same experience that Samantha and Dorothy have as they sit side by side, sharing thoughts and feelings.
Armstrong sees the fostering of friendship as a vital ‘upstream’ action that prevents problems such as social isolation at their source before they become a health problem. These links between health and friendship should signal to us that we all need social connection that is meaningful. She also feels that age groups have become more compartmentalized than ever before. “Seniors live in care facilities or supportive housing where no young people live; while the teen generations live separate lives in schools and colleges.”
One place where age groups are mixing is in places of worship. A study from 2010 was published in an article in Time Magazine. It focused on how belonging to a religion can also act as a community connection. It is a hub where one can not just meet people, but over time also develop very close friendships that can be stimulating and strengthening. The article says: “The results support the idea that friends and acquaintances can have a powerful, even contagious effect on our health.”
Whether one makes friends at a church, synagogue or at the community centre, the most powerful part of real friendship is the action of love expressed, transcending age, cultural or social barriers. At this time of year we become more sensitive to that presence or absence of love in our lives. Christianity’s main message to humanity was, and is “that ye love one another.” Difficult though that may be at times, it is clear that both reaching out to another in love and feeling loved are vital elements to individual and community health.
Samantha and Dorothy have been friends for two years now, thanks to a small non-profit that cares about bringing more active love into the community by connecting different ages to meet a common need – the practical expression of love in our lives.
You can read more about the non-profit group, LINKages, HERE