Over a decade ago, long before COVID-19 would drastically alter our world, Covia, (formerly Episcopal Senior Communities), developed a resource to combat loneliness and social isolation for seniors called Well Connected.
Well Connected is a nationwide social connection and lifelong learning program that is free and open to everyone—not just Covia residents or its affiliates—that offers a variety of hour-long informational, discussion-based, cultural, and topical interactive courses that folks can participate in by computer or telephone.
Tracy Powell, VP of Community Services at Covia, said that the program was initially designed for low-income, extremely isolated, frail older adults who needed more engagement. "It was a lovely but small support system rooted in engagement and volunteerism," she said, initially offering about six to 10 free one-hour classes per week. Over the last few years, the programming has grown "in sophistication and audience," with over 80 free classes now offered every single week. They were even able to launch Well Connected Español about a year ago.
Well Connected Sessions
But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Well Connected has grown exponentially. Prior to the social distancing and quarantining requirements brought about by the crisis, Well Connected had around 2,000 participants. Then, in the first two weeks of April alone, they added over 200 new participants—a ten percent increase in just two weeks after 10 years of operation. They've also seen an increase in the amount of participant-led course offerings, and now they’re getting calls from other senior living operators interested in enrolling groups of their own residents.
"There has been a huge increase in terms of enrollment and interest," Powell said. "There have been 50 to 75 organizations so far just in the last three weeks that have contacted us and asked if they can join and find out more about what's involved in virtual programming."
Enabling One-on-One Connections
Another Covia program called Social Call matches individuals with other individuals for one-on-one social connections. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, these were conducted in person based on shared interests and geographic proximity. Now, Social Call happens entirely by phone, lifting the geographic limitations and significantly expanding the possibilities for connections based on interests and compatibility—especially since the program has seen a huge influx of people wanting to volunteer in the wake of COVID-19.
"We've had so many people wanting to volunteer we've started a new program within Social Call to send crafty handmade cards to every Social Call and Well Connected participant," said Amber Carroll, Director of Well Connected. "Now in the last two weeks we've sent over 2,500 letters to people, to the point that the Social Call team needs more participants because we have so many volunteers!"
Especially during this time of social distancing and isolation, Social Call can not only maintain personal social ties for folks whose interactions are otherwise extremely limited, but their army of volunteers can also take some of the pressure off of senior housing staff by making check-up calls to their residents for them.
"That is an area we can help take the burden off of your staff," said Carroll. "We have the capacity to make calls to folks and reach out to individual residents within Covia and other housing communities."
Creativity as Emotional Support
Another project that Covia has spearheaded in response to COVID-19 is called "Enduring Inspiration," a worldwide call for art made by seniors in partnership with the organization Ruth's Table, an arts nonprofit located within Covia's affordable housing community Bethany Center.
Seniors around the world are encouraged to make any kind of art and send it in—a recipe, a collage, a painting, a drawing, or anything else that can be easily mailed—for a juried exhibit that will be held at the free-standing gallery space at Bethany Center once it is safe to do so. Covia is also developing art packets and embroidery kits to send out to seniors in their communities so they can create their own art.
Some of these programs already existed prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but have been rapidly expanded in response to this crisis to build capacity and increase reach and opportunities for engagement and connection.
"At the heart of it, this is all very central to our mission as an organization: building community wherever people are at," said Ron Schaefer, Chief Operating Officer at Covia. "These programs help us to reach people and help people to age successfully wherever they are."
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