Sometimes people, especially home-bound senior citizens, need someone to talk to or just listen to what they have to say, which could be about the simplest of things. But they are often lonely.
Step in, Anika Kumar, and a few of her peers. It would be easier to visualize a bunch of 15-16-year-olds spending their afternoons glued to their phones or hanging out with their friends than them engaging in conversations with senior citizens on a regular basis.
But the Indian American teen, a recent graduate of the San Jose, Calif.-based Notre Dame High School, and some of her high school volunteers, dedicatedly make phone calls to “socially isolated” senior citizens of Santa Clara county every Monday afternoon.
The phone calls are part of Kumar’s friendly phone call program, aptly titled, ‘Forget Me Not,’ which is intended and designed to reduce instances of isolation, loneliness, and depression among older adults.
The idea of making these personalized phone calls, which sometimes last as long as 45 or 60 minutes, dawned on her when she volunteered at an assisted living facility in her sophomore year.
“I was really pleasantly surprised how rewarding the work was,” Kumar told India-West. “My favorite part of the service was to be able to sit down and have conversations with the older adults, and I realized that so many of them have such little social interaction that they suffer from loneliness and depression, etc., and the only real solution to the problem is human interaction.”
Realizing that there aren’t many programs specifically designed for teenagers, and unless they are given an opportunity, a lot of them don’t naturally tend to gravitate towards work that involves older adults, Kumar set out to bring about a change in whatever little way she could.
“We talk to older adults who are homebound, physically impaired, who can’t go out, can’t drive, etc.” said Kumar. “But they can still just pick up a phone and have a meaningful conversation.”
Elaborating on the kind of conversations, which happen under supervision, Kumar said: “We basically talk about anything. We talk about our hobbies, favorite books, favorite movies, childhood memories, families, dreams and aspirations. It’s kind of a refreshing change, too.”
She said quite a few times, the students have helped the seniors become more tech-savvy.
How the program works is very simple but the cascading effect of these talks which bring immense joy to the seniors is incalculable.
Older adults or their children or the housing organization that they are part of can sign up for the phone call program by filling out a simple registration and interests form; high school students who have signed up for the program as volunteers are paired with one or two registered older adults. Before working, volunteers complete a mandatory training, where they are taught how to react in case of an emergency, like if they hear something potentially dangerous, who should they report to and how to interact with seniors suffering from ailments like Alzheimer’s or dementia; and then once a week, at a predetermined time, high school volunteers make these social companionship phone calls of about 20-30 minutes in length to their assigned older adults.
Currently, Kumar said, 12 volunteers are associated with the program and together, every week, they connect with close to 40 seniors.
Kumar admitted that when she initiated this phone program, it was meant to serve lonely and isolated seniors and help make their lives better, but over the course of the journey, she said she realized that the program is mutually rewarding.
“Sometimes, it’s more beneficial for the teenagers themselves because the older adults have so much to share as they have lived these rich and incredible lives and the stories they have are awesome,” she told India-West. “Sometimes, we will be learning about something in our history textbooks and they are able to provide a story because they have lived through it. Also, a lot of us are going through the next chapter of our lives and since they have gone through their transitions and had these experiences and they are really good at giving us advice.”
And how effective is this phone call service? The best way to gauge: “Sometimes, they tell us that they want us to call more or they are looking forward to the calls or that they have been waiting for the call all day long,” Kumar noted. “They can’t wait until we talk to them the next week. This really shows that how important this service is.”
“Forget Me Not” partners with Episcopal Senior Communities, a non-profit that operates retirement communities in Santa Clara County. And Episcopal Senior Communities was the one that had faith in Kumar when no one did.
Kumar, now 17, had the idea about this service when she was 15 but didn’t know how to go forward with her plan. Episcopal Senior Communities helped her chalk out her vision.
“A lot of people didn’t want to participate in the project,” she recalled to India-West, “because I didn’t have much credibility. But luckily, I found Episcopal Senior Communities early on and they were very supportive of the idea and they helped me get started.”
Kumar added that they also provided the training, and alleviated the liability concerns that people had.
“The most important part of this program is that it’s really rewarding to both parties,” Kumar said. “Older adults get a chance to interact with teenagers each week and we learn so much with every call we make.”
And now, as she readies to embark on her college career, she has handed over the reins of this chapter to younger volunteers, who have been a part of this program from the beginning. She would still be involved with the organization, though.
Kumar now aims to expand the reach of this friendly service to other locations by increasing the volunteer base. She hopes she can inspire more students from other high schools to join this service so that they are able to engage more senior citizens.
For more information about the “Forget Me Not” program, visit forgetmenotservices.org.