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UC San Diego researchers start program to pair youths and seniors to combat loneliness

Dr. Desiree Shapiro of UC San Diego
Dr. Desiree Shapiro of UC San Diego has designed a virtual mentorship program pairing teenagers and senior citizens to combat loneliness.
(Courtesy of Dr. Desiree Shapiro)

To take on the growing problem of loneliness, two UC San Diego researchers have launched a virtual mentorship program pairing teenagers and senior citizens in a six-month study to provide opportunities for connection.

Loneliness has been a problem across various generations since before the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. Desiree Shapiro, associate clinical professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at UCSD and Rady Children’s Hospital, and has increased during the periods of isolation resulting from pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings.

She said loneliness “has such an impact on health, similar to obesity and smoking.”

To address the issue, Shapiro and Heidi Banh, a third-year medical student at UCSD, designed an online program to bring together five seniors from retirement communities Casa de Mañana in La Jolla and Wesley Palms in San Diego and five teens throughout San Diego twice a month.

The program launched in May after nearly a year of preparation, with the 10 participants meeting once a month on Zoom, facilitated by Shapiro and Banh, “to talk about life, to talk about resilience, positivity and different positive psychology traits,” Banh said.

“We always are surprised by what comes up,” Shapiro said. “We may start with a theme, but we really have gotten into fascinating discussions, and we’ve seen youth and seniors just come together and start to discuss things that are really transformative in terms of bringing together generations.”

The participants also meet monthly on Zoom in senior-teen pairs on their own, Shapiro said. “Between these two [monthly meetings], there’s really an opportunity to group learn as well as deepen a one-on-one interaction and relationship.”

She said “in terms of adolescent development and positive youth development, the power of one individual can mean so much in someone’s life.”

The 10 participants range from age 15 to 102. The seniors were recruited through Shapiro and Banh’s outreach to their retirement communities. The teens were found through their participation in the Aaron Price Fellows Program, a leadership program for public high school students in San Diego County to promote community engagement.

Heidi Banh, a third-year medical student at UC San Diego, worked with Shapiro to design the intergenerational study.
(Courtesy of Heidi Banh)

To pair each teen with a senior, Banh said she created a “matching survey, taking what they identify with, like their culture, their passions, what matters to them on each side.”

She said she and Shapiro then paired “each [senior] mentor and [student] mentee together, based off of one shared characteristic,” such as an interest in writing, which gave pairs “that starting point to a relationship that is meaningful to both.”

Marv Galper, a senior living alone at Wesley Palms who is paired with a 17-year-old girl for the study, said he gets the most out of the one-on-one sessions, and that both he and the girl have expressed an interest in maintaining their friendship after the study’s conclusion.

“It’s the relationship with someone the age of a grandchild or great-grandchild,” Galper said, “which is absent in the lives of most people who live in a senior residence. ... This relationship with her brings some normality to my life.”

He said the group sessions are “ambitious,” and though he’s glad he joined the program, Galper would like to see “more education for participants providing ... a clearer, conscious focus on the core importance of trust between us.”

Banh said, “it’s been absolutely wonderful … to see how there’s curiosity on both sides, to learn about how the pandemic has influenced their lives [and] how they deal with resilience, how they work through hard times.”

She said both she and Shapiro “see so much potential in continuing to build these intergenerational relationships. There’s just so much learning to be had and compassion to be shared.”

Shapiro said the motivation for the program came partly from a 2020 UCSD study on loneliness, which found while loneliness is experienced throughout one’s lifetime, it peaks in one’s 20s and again in their 40s, but was lowest in their 60s, findings that she has experienced clinically.

“As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I absolutely see the level of loneliness and disconnection,” she said. “Kids are feeling alone … and I think that seeing one adult as someone who is in your corner that can be there for you that can be a support for you can be transformative. For seniors, to give of themselves to youth, and for youth to learn and also give, there’s such an opportunity for connection to happen and to feel authentically seen.”

Banh added, “when we came together [in summer 2020] to brainstorm things that we could create for our community, we thought of what was missing during the pandemic. At that time, kids were just switched from in-person school to being on Zoom … and it was really tough to really connect deeply with their teachers online. Reaching out was a lot harder.”

Banh said she and Shapiro also “thought about the seniors who were also limited in their capacity to get out into the community and do volunteer work to reach out to people and to still give to their community.”

Shapiro said the program began with “validated measures that assessed social connectedness, or connectedness to one’s community, resilience and mental wellbeing.”

The first few months of the study have shown “positive impacts for both youth and seniors … for wellbeing, connection [and] decreasing stereotypes,” she said, and that “it’s been something that the youth have looked forward to, as well as the seniors, something that has really brought in perspective.”

At the end of the six months, Shapiro said, “we’re going to see if there’s any change for the better,” which will involve asking participants if they feel more resilient, capable or connected because of the program.

And “because it’s more of a feasibility study,” she noted, “we want to hear from the participants about their experiences, was this logistically OK, was the format good for them, would they make other recommendations.”

Shapiro said she hopes to expand the program in the future.

For more information, email dlshapiro@health.ucsd.edu.