Sun, Oct 13, 2019 - Page 7 News List

The battle against the US’ loneliness crisis

In a twist on modern gig work, hundreds of college students yearning for a connection have found companionship, and a little money, through a new app that helps seniors who are similarly dealing with isolation

By Elena Kadvany  /  The Guardian

Illustration: June Hsu

While the digital natives of Generation Z and aging seniors inhabit different worlds, the two groups have something urgent in common: loneliness.

Last year, a national survey on loneliness in the US found that Americans are lonelier than ever. Nearly half of those polled in the Cigna survey reported sometimes or always feeling alone and only 53 percent said they had meaningful, in-person social interactions on a daily basis.

Feelings of isolation are most acute among adults ages 18 to 22. Members of Generation Z were significantly more likely than any other age group to say they felt isolated.

Research has long documented high rates of loneliness among seniors too. One in three adults over the age of 45 is lonely, an American Association of Retired Persons Foundation survey found.

One Silicon Valley startup is betting on an unlikely combination — college students, seniors and technology — to combat these trends.

Using an app, Mon Ami pairs California’s Bay Area students with elderly people to support their emotional wellbeing.

Joy Zhang, who had a background in healthcare, and Madeline Dangerfield-Cha, who had worked in education and digital marketing, started Mon Ami while at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. In more than 150 interviews, family members caring for aging parents repeatedly said they felt intense guilt for not being able to meet their parents’ emotional needs.

Zhang and Dangerfield-Cha saw an opportunity to tap college students — often yearning for connection themselves during a transitional life — to fill this gap in care for the older generation.

Today, more than 500 Bay Area college students have become “connective tissue” for more than 250 seniors through Mon Ami, Dangerfield-Cha said.

The relationships are facilitated by the app, through which students could search for seniors in need in their area (not unlike gig work), schedule visits and message with the seniors’ family members. They log a report every visit, complete with a selfie. The report triggers a PayPal payment for the students, who receive US$20 per hour of the US$25 hourly rate families pay.

The Guardian spoke with three pairs of Mon Ami students and seniors to ask how these meetings are making life less lonely for both groups in the 21st century.

Ted Bunding needs help getting in and out of his wheelchair. He struggles to speak clearly and recall questions he has been asked, and he sometimes thinks he has grasped hold of something, like a fork full of food, when he has not.

Bunding, 76, has lived with Parkinson’s disease for two decades. He is also an engineering buff whose eyes light up when Tanya Tannous, a 21-year-old University of California, Berkeley, student and Mon Ami “companion,” visits him once a week to fly paper airplanes together at an Oakland senior living facility.

The two are separated by five decades but have bonded over a mutual admiration for “how things work,” as Bunding put it.

Bunding is a former car mechanic who repaired computers at the Stanford campus bookstore for years and listens religiously to NPR’s Car Talk. Tannous, now a senior majoring in molecular biology, was obsessed with cars as a young girl. When they are not testing out flight variables for paper airplanes, they are deep in the pages of Engineering the Pyramids and J.R.R. Tolkien books.

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