Student talks to friend using computer camera.
Miranda Savioli, a VCU medical student, and Joan Kerby (on screen) chat via video on November 20. "It’s a way of connecting and feeling connected to the world,” Kerby said of her weekly calls with Savioli. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Weekly calls blossom into friendships between seniors and VCU health sciences students

“It gave us a way to connect with other people in a time when no one is meeting,” said one student of the group’s conversations with Henrico retirees.

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Once a week, rain or shine, the phone rings in Joan Kerby’s apartment in Lakewood Retirement Community.

That’s the signal for the 70-year-old retiree to shoo away her husband and launch into a wide-ranging discussion with 27-year-old VCU medical student Miranda Savioli — a conversation that might last an hour or more.

The retired IT business analyst and the med student from Lafayette, New Jersey, have never met in person. But after talking like this almost every week since April, Kerby considers Savioli a friend. Kerby credits their phone calls with helping her survive the lockdown and quarantine brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a way of connecting and feeling connected to the world,” Kerby said. “It has meant a tremendous amount to me, and it still does. It’s one of the things that’s helped me hold it together.”

Savioli said she feels the same way.

“I look forward to talking with her every week,” she said.

Savioli and Kerby connected through a program run by VCU students involved with the American Geriatrics Society that coordinates conversations with students and residents of retirement homes. So far, the all-volunteer operation has connected about three dozen students with residents of Lakewood, a large community of retirees in Henrico County.

The virus that causes COVID-19 is much deadlier among older populations, and close living quarters have caused it to spread quickly in some senior facilities. Without a viable vaccine, staying away from others is the best way to avoid spreading the disease. 

But that necessary precaution has come at a cost. Loneliness can have serious effects on health, particularly for older adults. An AARP study in 2018 pointed out that isolation among older adults is a major risk factor for conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure and early onset dementia. Health problems caused or worsened by seniors’ isolation cost Medicare $6.7 billion in additional spending every year, the AARP study found.

This loneliness, already serious, was made sharply worse by the pandemic and ensuing lockdown, said Sarah Hobgood, M.D., an associate professor of internal medicine at the VCU School of Medicine and the faculty liaison to the student geriatrics group.

People at restaurant table wearing masks.
In October, Edie Ellis, left, met Kim Arena and her boyfriend, VCU School of Medicine student Matt Westfall, for lunch at a Richmond sports bar. It was the first time they had seen each other in person. The two had spoken on the phone many times through a program started by VCU students to connect with the residents of a local retirement community in Henrico County. (Courtesy of Edie Ellis)

Previously active, socially engaged retirees in assisted- and independent-living facilities found themselves suddenly cut off from friends, families and fellow residents. During lockdown periods, they might not see anyone outside their apartments for weeks.

The tight restrictions on visitors also meant that health professions students could not visit or interact with older patients the way they usually would as part of their training. That worried the students with the geriatrics society.

“We were kind of struggling to figure out how we would continue our mission,” said Nadia Khoury, a physical therapy student in the VCU College of Health Professions who’s involved with the geriatrics group.

“We were all trying to figure out ways to help,” said Tiffany Tsay, a School of Medicine student and president of the student geriatrics group.

Someone at VCU — no one is sure who — came up with the idea of communicating with residents. The proposal seemed promising but “tricky,” said Hobgood. The main complication was that privacy law and policies meant that retirement communities could not simply share names and contact information for their residents.

The group started by soliciting messages from fellow students that a handful of student volunteers, working in sterile environments, transcribed onto greeting cards. These were sent in bundles to anonymous recipients in nursing homes and assisted-living communities in the Richmond area.  

But the goal was to build relationships. So this spring, with the assistance of Hobgood and Chuck Alexander, an education administrator at the VCU School of Medicine, the students reached out to a number of assisted-living communities.

At Lakewood, program manager Courtney Harver was intrigued by the proposal. “Isolation is a huge, huge issue with older adults,” Harver said, and it can lead to loneliness and depression. During a lockdown, “you’re stuck in your room for 24 hours a day.”

Regular interactions with new people — particularly younger ones — could help, Harver thought. She asked some of her residents if they would like to participate.

Among those who said yes was Edie Ellis. Now almost every Friday, Ellis takes a break from hanging out with Cricket, her 12-year-old cocker spaniel, and spends up to an hour talking by phone with graduate student Kim Arena. 

“She’s just a delightful young lady,” said Ellis, 74, a retired health educator.

With 50 years difference in age, what do the two women talk about? “Oh, man, all kinds of stuff,” said Arena, who is pursuing a doctorate in cellular and developmental biology at the University of Virginia and got involved through her boyfriend, a VCU School of Medicine student. “Our families, our backgrounds.” 

“Her boyfriend,” added Ellis with a chuckle.   

Since spring, many facilities — including Lakewood — have seen reduced rates of coronavirus transmission and have relaxed their regulations. Residents can walk around the grounds and travel outside the facility. In October, Ellis even met Arena and her boyfriend for lunch at a Richmond sports bar. It was the first time they had seen each other in person. They talked for three hours. 

But with winter on the way and the COVID-19 virus spiking around the country, many health experts warn that more restrictions may be inevitable, perhaps until a safe vaccine is widely available. That, they say, could take a year or more.

Even after the pandemic is defeated, some students say they’ve had a chance to see how important programs like this one can be. Participants vow to continue calling, writing and — when it’s safe — visiting. 

“We’ve had a really stark reminder of the isolation people can experience in many of these facilities,” said participant Elisabeth Marker, who is earning her pharmacy doctorate at the VCU School of Pharmacy.

Marker learned something else. “When you are helping other people, you are also helped,” she said. “This project gave us someone else to think about and to focus on. It gave us a way to connect with other people in a time when no one is meeting. People [who are taking part] say, ‘I loved getting to know this person.’”

That’s certainly true of Joan Kerby and Miranda Savioli.

“I plan on talking to her after lockdown,” Kerby said. “I don’t plan on it stopping. And I don’t think she does either.”

Savioli, the medical school student, agreed.

“I kind of expected this to be something I could be doing as a volunteer — to help someone else,” she said, sounding amazed. “I didn’t expect to be making a friend.”