Hungarian program connects seniors with stand-in grandkids in an innovative pandemic-relief effort
“How are you today?” Nowadays, this question is heard often over the phone by elderly people who live alone. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced these seniors to stay within their four walls, insulated from social life outside. The phone conversations are sometimes reminiscent of what we think of as the customary exchanges between grandparents and their grandchildren. In reality, however, that’s not at all what they are. At the other end of the line is a volunteer who has pledged to talk four-five hours a week with a stranger. Two organisations have joined forces to coordinate this.
Surveys show that out of a total population of 10 million in Hungary, some 700,000 people are seniors aged 65 or older who live alone. This has become an even greater problem than normally because of the coronavirus epidemic and the extraordinary measures that have been devised by the authorities in response.
On 11 March 2020, the government proclaimed a state of emergency, as part of which travel restrictions were introduced, barring people from entering Hungary, and public venues such as libraries or theatres, for example, were also closed. These were followed by further efforts aimed at promoting social distancing: schools were suspended, a curfew was imposed, and as part of a wide-scale campaign the public was called upon to stay at home and to only go out when absolutely necessary.
Since both scientific research and the initial experience with the virus confirmed that the elderly and/or those with chronic preconditions were the most at-risk segments of the population with respect to Covid-19 infections, the rules and public notices were geared especially towards convincing these groups to stay put.
In the case of those who do not have younger family members who could offer them logistical assistance in this situation, municipal governments, the welfare service providers and various aid organisations sought to extend assistance in the form of shopping for the elderly, taking care of errands and providing protective equipment. At the same time, however, hardly any attention was paid to their mental health in this emotionally taxing situation.
But the closing of the borders (as a result of which many of the younger Hungarians working abroad were stuck outside the country, away from their relatives here), social distancing measures and the curfew (those over 65 were only allowed to go shopping in time intervals designated specifically for them, when younger people were barred from entering stores) left many elderly who previously had a social life – even if it was sometimes minimal – and opportunities to meet with loved ones or friends completely alone and bereft of company. With the state of emergency, their previous access to human connection disappeared almost entirely, and a growing number of people found themselves in isolating situations when they could not get in touch with another person for days on end.
And the harmful impact of solitude is not only mental, it is also physical: according to a study led by the University of Helsinki, which monitored the subjects over a period of seven years, social isolation increases the risk of stroke by 39% and the risk of a premature death by 50%.
And while the elderly spent their days holed up behind their four walls, youths, too, faced an unprecedented situation. In addition to having to adjust to e-learning, which was introduced out of the blue without much previous groundwork, due to the lockdown they were also barred from meeting up with friends and they could not go out to do sports or to have fun.
This led to a parallel in the respective situations of the elderly and of young people, in that they were both deprived of access to the wider community and to their social relations, while no one had any idea how long this situation was going to last. That was when the How are you today? programme was launched, which tries to lend a helping hand to both groups at the same time.
Two organisations join forces
The Festival Volunteer Centre has been recruiting young people to become actively involved in various events for ten years now. The number of volunteers they actually mobilise fluctuates each year. There are some “old” hands, returning members, while new ones also join all the time. Last year, their volunteer database counted some 2,000 names. In this situation, access to such a pre-existing database proved to be a major asset for those who dreamed up the new program.
“Every major event in the country was cancelled because of the epidemic, and some of the restrictions may stay in place even throughout the summer” – said Réka Nagy, CEO of the Festival Volunteer Centre and one of the creators of the How are you today? programme. “This means that the major concerts have been called off, along with the festivals that offered entertainment to thousands of visitors. These were not only events were youths went to chill and have fun, but also events where many of them went to volunteer. We pondered a lot what we could offer them instead as opportunities to become engaged, to spend their time usefully – and that’s when the idea of getting in touch with others over the phone came to us.
The effort to connect youths with the elderly while they are both under compulsory lockdown was launched with a two-pronged approach. First, the Volunteer Centre sent out a newsletter to the volunteers in its database, in which it briefly informed them about the program. At the same time, the other organisation co-managing the project, the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta (hereinafter the Maltese Aid Service), used its own channels and offered a free helpline (+36-1-391-4710) to reach out the elderly.
“At first, we contacted those older clients whom we had been in touch with already”– said Lajos Győri-Dani, the executive vice-president of the Hungarian Maltese Aid Service, one of the co-initiators of the program. “We explained to everyone in detail what we have in mind and what those who become involved can expect. Many were very happy to hear about the opportunity, and this early success spurned us to try to expand the circle of persons we could involve”.
“We sent out a press release describing the project, so that it could reach even more people,” Réka Nagy elaborated on how the program was launched. “Thanks to the newsletter and the press attention, 350 volunteers contacted us within the first few days, saying they want to get involved in the program. Our campaign also reached out the elderly and encouraged them to get involved as well, and now over a hundred have expressed a desire for such phone conversations. It takes time to connect the parties, but we now have matched some 60-70 pairs.”
Still, things are not quite as simple as that may sound.
The volunteers have to register first, when they are asked to submit some personal information (age, name, where they can be contacted). Next, they receive educational materials which they are asked to study. The basic curriculum was designed by psychologists at the Maltese Aid Service, and then the materials were augmented by the coaches and the coordinators of the Festival Volunteer Centre. Those who successfully fill out a questionnaire compiled based on the materials in the curriculum are then interviewed online by the project organisers. If the applicant passes that stage, too, then the organisers conclude a contract with them.
“We did not expect to have such splendid ‘human resources’ at our disposal”, says Réka Nagy in recounting the story of the program. “We hardly had to reject any applicants thus far. And the only reason why a few failed to make the cut was because they were too young (there is an age limit of 16) and/or because they were too nervous when filling out the test or during the interview. We need youths in this programme who are self-confident and have perseverance, since this program is designed to last for an extended period”, the project manager emphasised.
As part of the admissions process, the applicants were also asked on what days of the week and at what times of the day they would be available for phone calls, for a total of 4-5 hours per week, and whether they would prefer to talk to women or men. The same questions were asked of the elderly who expressed an interest. The experience thus far is that women predominate both among the elderly and the young participants, but at least in part this is the inevitable consequence of the underlying demographic statistics, which show that in 2017 46% of women 65 or older lived alone, while this was only true of 20% of men in that age group.
The pairs that have been matched up thus far were then given each other’s contact information, and the actual program activity was set to begin.
Supportive conversations with strict conditions
“We provide the volunteers with guidelines on how to communicate with the other party. The essence of How are you today? is to help the elderly who live alone by offering them supportive personal conversations, to alleviate their sense of loneliness and insecurity. It is important for them to talk about issues that are interesting for both parties and that can cheer them up”, Réka Nagy explained.
But talking to a stranger requires a whole different mindset than ordinary family conversations with relatives. Although the topics can be free-ranging, from cooking over family stories all the way to how online messaging works (the participants are also given a list of potential topics to discuss), certain boundaries must be respected.
“A phone call can brighten up the day of the elderly. What matters most in this context is that the elderly participants get a sense that someone cares about them, that they are not alone, that someone pays attention and listens to them”, says Anita Buzás-Kovács, a career coach and mentor. “But it is better to steer clear of issues that would require an expert, such as for example grieving, illnesses, mood swings and how to manage them.
This is not a mental help hotline. We respect our boundaries, and if we find that we need help on issues outside our area of expertise, then we recommend the expert or service needed in that context”
– Anita Buzás-Kovács explains.
The other difficulty is that over time the participants grow accustomed to these chats, they become a part of the elderly participants’ daily routine. As a result, when the notion that they will come to an end crops up, then this can steer the conversation towards the issues of passing, loneliness and fear of death. Fortunately, the volunteers are always welcome to turn to the Volunteer Centre’s experts for assistance.
“We have created scripts, documentation and various aids and materials to help the volunteers better prepare for these conversations. They are of course also always welcome to draw on any of the resources of the Festival Volunteer Centre”, said Anita Buzás-Kovács. “When someone’s stuck, they are always encouraged to ask for assistance, which is available to them throughout the entire process, extended as needed by mentors, trainers and coordinators.
Although no one listens in on the conversations outside the two parties who are directly involved, some level of supervision is necessary. That is why the participating youths are asked to fill out a feedback form after each conversation, in which they share their impressions and experiences during the most recent call. These surveys help the organisers continuously monitor the programme and to adjust it where necessary.
“It’d be too early to assess whether our method has worked. We have over 200 completed calls already, but my sense is that we are still in the early stages of a long process. Based on the first feedbacks, however, the programme appears to be working. Indeed, it appears to be working very well. There is always room for improvement, of course, and when necessary, we will make corrections” – Anita Buzás-Kovács added.
“At first, I experienced it as an assignment”
The participating youths quickly came to like and embrace the program, for several reasons. Project Manager Réka Nagy says that one advantage for volunteers is that this kind of assistance does not require a physical presence, it is convenient and safe. Some applied because they were bored during the quarantine, while others wanted to be involved in something useful, they were looking for a good cause to engage in during the crisis. Many applicants joined because of the relationship with their own grandparents – or the lack thereof. There were also those who said they wanted the elderly to feel that they are needed.
The 29-year-old volunteer Tünde Nagy had similar thoughts in her mind when she learned about the program from an internet article.
“I’ve seen countless videos recently about how the elderly population have been barred from doing virtually anything outside. They can’t go anywhere, they can’t meet anyone, not even their loved ones, to make sure that they don’t get infected by their family. Their entire world has narrowed extremely; neither stores nor post office …And internet telephony wasn’t developed with them in mind either, of course, it doesn’t come as easily or naturally to them as it does to young people. I tried to imagine what this situation might be like for them, and this thought experiment compelled me to apply”, says Tünde Nagy, who immediately contacted the organisers to ask if she could join the program.
The “application” process was concluded swiftly, and Tünde soon found herself holding the phone in her hand and ready to place her first call.
“At first, I experienced it as an assignment. I was a bit ill at ease, even though I often talk to strangers in my line of work. We had been told during the training that we always need to turn towards the other party with attentive empathy, to let them talk, since we are not the key characters here, they are. But once we became acquainted, it all changed”.
Having completed four phone calls, Tünde feels that a close bond bordering on friendship has emerged between her and her partner. This makes her a little concerned since the rules need to be complied with and the boundaries set out need to be respected. She finds that this is the most difficult aspect of her engagement in the program.
“We have touched on every issue imaginable in our conversations; how things used to be back in the day, what they are like now, everyday life, foods, drinks – whatever came to mind. A conversation is generally about two hours, and we never run out of things to say. Sadly, my own grandparents are no longer with us, and it is a great joy for me to talk to someone who is about as old as they would be. That’s what makes me anxious what will happen when the programme comes to an end. The contact between each pair was planned to span at least three months, but I don’t know how long it will actually go on now that they are starting to relax the lockdowns and lift the other restrictions, too. I’d be very happy if we could stay in touch once the program ends. We wouldn’t necessarily be talking as we do now, but I would like to continue our chats since we have grown genuinely fond of one another”, Tünde Nagy recounted.
“It’s important to stress that the volunteers do not get access to their elderly partner’s address, where they live or stay, in order to pre-empt any type of potential abuse, such as for example theft”
– explains Anita Buzás-Kovács. “In fact, even the Festival Volunteer Centre does not have this information at its disposal. We use codes to keep track of the participating seniors in our database. There was a situation when someone wanted the address of a young volunteer to return their kindness with a present, and they wanted to send it by mail. For obvious reasons, that runs afoul of the rules of the game,” the mentor emphasises.
A bright spot in life
“Both side have a need for personal connection” – that’s the perception of Jolán Vörös, who is involved as a party on the receiving end of the phone calls in the How are you today? program.
“As a retired educator I had many questions when I first heard about the program from an acquaintance in a local chapter of the Maltese Aid Service. I was curious about the goals, the topics, and so I ultimately decided to commit. Now I would really like to meet my conversation partner in person, even if it only happens once the program is done…”
Jolán Vörös lost her spouse last December, after nursing him at home for months. This weighed heavily on her. She does not have a regular social circle to hang out with, and one of her children lives in another city while the other travels across Europe for work. Thus, when the state of emergency was announced, the former teacher was all alone. Although she did not feel weighed down by the forced lockdown, the conversations are bright spots in her everyday life.
“I always look forward to our next ‘meeting’, it cheers me up,” she tells Átlátszó. “I like her voice; I can almost picture her. She could be my daughter or my grandchild. It turns out that we have some things in common, that’s why they matched us up. We have talked so much already, we have cooked together and she even helped me set up the Wi-Fi on my laptop – over the phone. When the program started, I didn’t quite know what to expect, it’s something completely novel, after all. But now, it’s hard to imagine how it could be any better than this! I am happy that we can talk freely about anything, even our own lives – that’s probably the best part”.
Jolán Vörös says that the program gives many participants the opportunity to open up and to talk about themselves more candidly, to divulge things about themselves that they may have never shared with anyone before. Sometimes it is easier to talk to a stranger than to someone we know.
“I wish everyone could find as wonderful a volunteer as I did. I am grateful for having gotten to know her and for the conversations. I hope we will get to meet in person at some point”, says Jolán Vörös.
“We might extend such an opportunity at some point”, Lajos Győri-Dani revealed.
“That is the natural trajectory and evolution of relationships: Over time, the parties involved grow increasingly fond of one another, trust develops and a desire to meet the other in person arises. But for that to happen, the staff of the Maltese Aid Service needs to meet with the volunteers first”, the organisation’s executive vice president pointed out. “Those who are involved in the program got in touch with us because of their trust in the two organisations, we arranged the connection between the participants. That means we have a huge responsibility here. We are responsible for the program and especially the safety of the elderly who are involved, which means that we can only move forward if we comply with certain rules”, he added.
A need for strong supervision
“It is important for the organisers to consider carefully where they go from here, since it is likely that a psychological relationship, a bond will develop between the partners who have been matched with each other as part of the program”, says Dr Amaryl Árkovits, a psychiatrist and psychotherapy trainer who manages the SOS Life Hotline in the southwestern Hungarian town of Pécs. “In my opinion, the program works well for supporting older people who have been forced into a situation where they feel lonely and isolated. But the question is what happens when it ends. How will the lonely older people deal with their sense of loss when the previously intense conversations are potentially disrupted? What happens, when – this being voluntary work – the volunteer drops out? Who will converse with the elderly person who received this form of support until then? And what I am talking about here is not only the practical aspect of the conversation, of passing time. I mean that one inevitable result of such intense conversations is that a bond is forged between the people involved.
These are not just numbers, there is a person at one end of the line, and another on the other end of the line”
– Dr Amaryl Árkovits points out.
According to the manager of the mental health hotline, it is also important to teach the volunteers how to say goodbye and to ensure that the entire program is carefully supervised throughout. “Any type of assistance performed by a team needs to involve a common idea of the community (the staff). There need to be staff meetings (this can also take place online), and there must be access to supervision if necessary. Because even if the plan is to only talk about ‘nice things’, it is always easy to run into difficult or emotionally straining issues,” stresses Dr Amaryl Árkovits.
The psychiatrist also stressed that the quarantine has exacerbated the isolation that often accompanies old age, as it substantially reduces the few routine points of connection for many elderly, such as going to the store or meeting neighbours. In other words, the program will only become genuinely useful in alleviating the sense of loneliness among the elderly if its extended long-term application is considered (that is scheduling, planning the capacities of the volunteers, organising staff meetings and supervision, etc.) even beyond the quarantine, because once the quarantine ends and the program ends with it, the old people will continue to be alone. In a situation when someone talked with them for hours each week and then suddenly no longer does, they are likely to occasionally grieve for the lost conversation partner. One must always be mindful of this to make sure that an assistance extended at a given moment of necessity does not end up backfiring”, the expert said with reference to the challenge ahead.
Working on sustainability
The Festival Volunteer Centre and the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta are working to ensure that all the conditions are in place so that the parties will get to enjoy each other’s company for a long time to come. Nevertheless, just as in the case of most programs of this kind, for How are you today?, too, sustainability is the greatest challenge ahead. Because even though the phone calls are performed by volunteers, the professional background provided by the organisations involved also comes at a cost. But the organisations involved have no intention of suspending or terminating the program, which is why they are exploring several options to secure long-term funding.
On 19 May they launched their Let’s all kick in fundraising campaign, as part of which the donors receive various special presents depending on the amount they have contributed.
The other awareness-raising activity is the so-called theme week. This involves asking prominent persons (and later corporations, too) to advertise a given topic (e.g. a renowned chef will be asked to talk about gastronomy) on their own platforms and among their own followers, while they use the opportunity to introduce the How are you today? program and ask their fans to contribute. The topic is naturally also shared with the volunteers, so – in addition to having additional ideas in case they run out of topics to discuss – the existing pairs can also become organically involved in the campaign.
“A group of 7-8 professionals has invested a lot of work in launching this program. But it has grown in size and now we have a responsibility for the several hundreds of persons who are involved”, says the project coordinator, Réka Nagy. “We trust that people will come to share a sense of how joyful, energising and vital the How are you today? project is and will then support its continued operation. We have received a lot of positive feedback from those who are already involved, and there are more and more people who wish to join. We would like this program to continue to serve as a bond connecting youths with the elderly and those who desire attention and long for human relationships. Even once the current threat has subsided.”
Because this program is not only about reducing the isolation and loneliness of the elderly during the time of the pandemic. When talking to the elderly participants, Lajos Győri-Dani experienced that the desire to give something back was at least as strong a motivation for the elderly as it was for the young people involved.
“They sense that there is something mutual going on here, an opportunity for them to help, too. They want to give something, to become more engaged, that’s what motivated many of them to join.
After all, the youths also gain a lot of experience and knowledge from these conversations, which makes the experience just as important for them as it is for the elderly”, the executive vice-president explained. “The various generations need one another, regardless of the epidemic. We hope that the bonds that are being forged now will persist for a long time to come, and that they will continue to bring a lot of joy into everyone’s life”.
Written by Eszter Katus, translated by Gábor Győri. You can read the original Hungarian version of this article here. Photo credit: Pixabay. This article was supported by Transitions and Mertek Media Monitor.