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Carolina students connect with senior citizens

Pharmacy student Diana Lee organized a phone-a-friend program that is connecting Tar Heels with some of the residents most impacted by social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders: senior citizens.

Diana Lee
Diana Lee.

When her classes at the Eshelman School of Pharmacy were moved to remote learning and staying inside became her new norm, she started to feel disconnected to the rest of the world.

To reconnect, she wanted to find a way to help people feeling the same way.

“I was sitting at home pretty helpless, and I knew that there are a lot of vulnerable communities out there,” said Lee, a third-year doctor of pharmacy student. “I felt like I was doing my part by staying home but felt like I could be doing more.”

Tapping into that desire to help, Lee organized a phone-a-friend program that is connecting Carolina students with some of the residents most impacted by social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders: senior citizens. Nearly 100 Tar Heels signed up to participate in the program to help community members fight the feelings of isolation.

The program is working with local care facilities to connect students with senior citizens with shared interests. The Tar Heels who participate are expected to reach out for a 30-minute phone call several times a week.

“The goal of it is to help alleviate loneliness on both sides — for students and for senior citizens — and to help foster a closer sense of community while we are practicing social distancing,” Lee said.

Becca Jordan, an MBA student at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, signed up for the program because she feels it fills a need that she’s seen firsthand. Having visited grandparents and a great uncle in nursing homes, she has seen how isolating the facilities can feel even under better circumstances.

“When I found this opportunity, I immediately thought of my grandmother and my great uncle and their experiences and thought that this would be a good way to keep connected with the community,” she said.

It’s a personal connection that Lee has heard from many of the participating students.

“A lot of people have said that their parents are elderly, or their grandparents live in a facility, and it means so much to them that this program exists,” she said. “A lot shared the same feelings of wanting to help but didn’t know how. There’s a lot of love for our older community.”

Carolina junior Anthony Schinelli saw the opportunity as a chance to give back to the Chapel Hill community and make a new friend in the process. He began talking with his new senior citizen friend, Gerry, last week. On their first call, they ended up talking for nearly an hour.

“We just had so much to talk about,” he said. “We just had a fun conversation about baseball and life and everything in between. It was just a great conversation. It was a really, really special phone call for sure.”

The two have now penciled each other in to talk three times a week. The calls, Schinelli said, are going to “keep us both sane during this whole quarantine.”