All kinds of people

By Jack Cumming

Kevin Gerber, CEO of Covia (formerly Episcopal Senior Communities) is one of those rare people with whom you connect instantly. He’s a quiet, soft-spoken man and, yet, he’s one of the most empowering people I know. I first met him at a USC gerontology conference, and I’ve followed his trajectory since.

Recently, I attended a webinar sponsored by LeadingAge California but facilitated by Kevin to provide a showcase for Amber Carroll who is leading a Covia initiative for social connectedness as an antidote to isolation. The focus is on the elderly, though it struck me as she spoke that her initiative could benefit all ages, all socioeconomic groups, and all kinds of people.

A Simple Concept

Covia calls its program “Well Connected”. It’s not a new idea. Microsoft led the way a decade ago, just as broadband internet was becoming common, with its Virtual Senior Center pilot project in New York City. The idea is to bring people together who may be isolated due to mobility, hearing or other limitations.

There are a number of programs that have developed from the success of the New York pilot. Most of them are called “Senior Center Without Walls”. Most of the early participants were individuals living alone in their homes. They welcomed the opportunity to be able to participate in distant activities as part of a group.

Serving the Wider Community

True to its origins under denominational auspices, Covia seeks to serve the wider community as well as its business and senior housing mission commitments. It is a public benefit corporation and, as such, it takes its responsibility to meet public needs seriously. The result is that Well Connected is not confined internally to Covia entities or affiliates, but is open to all in the wider community.

This has extended Well Connected’s reach beyond Covia’s concentration in the San Francisco Bay Area. An intriguing example reported in the webinar is a partnership among Well Connected, Meals on Wheels America, Meals on Wheels Rhode Island, and Brown University. Well Connected is also adding programs for those whose first language is other than English, beginning with Spanish, which is a common language in Covia’s home state of California.

Participants as Providers

What Amber Carroll and the Well Connected program have done is involve the participants in creating the program. As she says, “The program is with older adults and not just for them”. That echoes former National Continuing Care Residents Association President, Bob Nicholson’s call: “If it’s about us, then with us”.

In Well Connected’s case, that mutuality of understanding led to reciprocity. The usual model of aging is that of provider-client. Amber Carroll cited University of Chicago professor John Cacioppo’s finding that psychotherapy can be more effective when it’s mutual. His research dealt with loneliness, one of the sad outcomes from the anonymity of our urbanized society.

In an interview with The Atlantic, he articulated what most in the senior living sense, “Hunger takes care of your physical body. Loneliness takes care of your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper. We’re a social species.” His premise was that we need not only to receive affection and attention, but we also need to give to others in order to feel complete.

That premise lies at the core of Well Connected. Participants are volunteers and vice versa. The most popular program is simply called “Gratitude”. Participants each tell a story of one thing for which they are grateful. The stories often bring tears or laughter. Participants bond with each other.

Accommodating to Aging

Engaging with the elderly to create a program with them and of them, as well as for them, meant making compromises that are working well. For instance, although the inspiration was the growing popularity of video connectivity, 80% of the participants choose to connect by phone, and the programs are designed to support them.

Moreover, many of the participants no longer have the capacity to deal with any complexity at all. Well Connected addresses that by allowing callers to dial in and, then to connect with a program with only two digits. But, even that is not enough for some. For them, Well Connected has developed an automated phone-out program that calls pre-registered participants at the appointed time to bring them into the group activity.

Every Day, a Connected Day

A recent calendar of Well Connected’s programs showed 87 activities scheduled over the course of a week. The programs are offered 7 days a week since many participants shared that the weekends were often the loneliest.

Because the programs are facilitated and organized by participants, this 7 day a week programming is not the burden on paid staff that one might expect. Participant leadership also allows the proliferation of programming far beyond what might otherwise be possible.

Participants and Partners

Amber Carroll described Well Connected’s origins with individual participants, most of whom were living alone or in congregate living, and seldom came to activities. With time, however, partnerships with senior centers and other senior serving entities have developed bringing the benefits of connectivity to more and more people.

A popular emerging model involves group participation. For instance, one Well Connected activity is called “Museums at Home”, in which docents from a variety of museums lead tours of their collections. Although most of the participants dial in by telephone, the “Museums at Home” program is also live-streamed. Several Activities Directors have now scheduled group viewing sessions. Participants gather as a group weekly at the same time in the same place to participate in the program.

Well Connected is actively seeking partners to help deliver its programs more widely. The potential is unlimited, though Amber Carroll does try to keep groups to a manageable size. For instance, the Gratitude Program is now so popular that it has divided into 14 groups each week in English and 2 groups in Spanish.

With the People, For the People

At one time, it was my hope that resident associations, like the National Continuing Care Residents Association (NaCCRA), might develop programs like Covia’s Well Connected. We initially called the program NaCCRA Fellowship, but we were unable to locate a pastor or social worker willing to facilitate weekly online group sharing sessions. It then appeared that we might partner with LeadingAge, but with leadership changes both in LeadingAge and NaCCRA the idea got lost.

Perhaps, it’s now an idea whose time has come. Covia has now brought that idea into reality. It’s an idea that deserves to grow. It’s a service that America needs.

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