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.
Illustration: June Hsu
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.
“When they’re together, he wakes up,” said Liz Erlich, Bunding’s younger sister and primary caretaker. “They can communicate. Because Ted has difficulty talking, a lot of people don’t understand him and they turn away, but if you spend a little bit of time and a little bit of effort, you begin to hear him.”
Bunding was one of Mon Ami’s earliest clients. Stanford students visited him and his partner at their Menlo Park home. As his Parkinson’s and his partner’s dementia advanced, their families decided they both would need more intensive care and moved them into separate facilities.
While Erlich’s daily visits are mostly focused on her brother’s medical care or chores, Tannous is there solely to spend time with him.
After they spend time together, his mood is lighter and he is more engaged, his sister said.
The students are not meant to provide professional care, but rather companionship. The Mon Ami founders drew on research that has shown the health benefits of social interaction for seniors, from combating cognitive decline to reducing the use of pharmacological interventions in people with dementia. (On the flip side, loneliness has been linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia, obesity, depression and anxiety.)
“To have this aspect of taking care of someone — to think about somebody’s emotional and mental life — I’m very glad they came up with this idea,” Erlich said. “It shouldn’t be one or the other. It’s both.”
This emotional uplifting is even more critical for seniors in assisted living centers, Erlich said, where “what’s easiest” is often “to get somebody dressed, put them in a wheelchair and stick them in the corner.
With the kind of engagement Tannous provides, “instead of just existing, you’re living,” Erlich said.
Tannous, whose grandfather also has Parkinson’s, joined Mon Ami last year after her roommate worked as a companion. She has become a consistent part of Bunding’s life. She could intuit what he is saying even when his speech is difficult to understand — including jokes that someone who had not invested that time or overlooked him because of his condition might miss entirely.
“As young people I think we forget sometimes that there are people that have preceded us and make us who we are,” Tannous said. “It’s important to connect with generations above us and below us.”
Young techies and older San Franciscans are often at odds with one another. In a fifth-floor apartment in Russian Hill on a recent afternoon, two found common ground.
Jacob Choi, a 29-year-old educational technology startup founder, was helping Sandra Church, an 82-year-old former Broadway actor born in San Francisco, draft itineraries and send e-mails for her coming two-and-a-half-month trip to Europe. Choi, a Mon Ami companion, comes over once or twice a month for six hours, usually on a Sunday, to help Church with odd jobs around her home.
“I just can’t do all this stuff anymore by myself,” she said. “When it gets [to the point that] I can’t handle it, I’m just a nervous wreck.”
Choi, who graduated from the Stanford School of Business last year, does a little bit of everything for Church. He has created a filing system to organize decades of her handwritten journals, set up her Sonos sound system, reprogrammed an all-in-one remote, fixed stuck doorknobs and hung her canvas paintings in a back hallway.
Church — warm and energetic with a dry sense of humor, peppered with profanities — insists she was not seeking companionship through Mon Ami.
“I’m a loner,” she said.
The two have an almost familial rapport. They talk politics, art, history and films. A frequent topic is the role tech has played in changing San Francisco. (Church has been both fascinated and horrified to learn about automation and job displacement from Choi.)
“One of the things that we talk about a lot is how the infiltration of tech companies is ruining the culture of San Francisco, especially for people who have been here for a really long time,” Choi said.
He sees Mon Ami as a “good opportunity to use technology — it’s an app [and] it’s kind of gig work as well — to give back.”
Choi visits regularly with one other Mon Ami senior, a Japanese-American woman with severe Alzheimer’s. They often visit the de Young Museum and go on walks in Golden Gate Park.
The time he spends with these women — off his phone and in conversation with people from another generation — is precious to him as well.
“This is kind of my escape from my normal job, to be honest,” he said. “Sandra’s not on her iPhone checking her Instagram, you know?”
At one Silicon Valley senior living facility, Mon Ami students pull hard-to-reach residents back into life.
Earlier this year, staff at the BridgePoint at Los Altos partnered with the company to work with seniors who tend to stay in their rooms and are not receptive to the staff’s efforts to engage them.
One such resident is Carlos Watson. The 85-year-old native of Jamaica, Vietnam veteran and former professor is endlessly talkative, but spends a lot of time in his room.
However, on a recent weekend morning, he talked animatedly with Marck Rakotoson, a 21-year-old De Anza College student from Madagascar. Both are passionate about civil rights, Watson as a participant in the 1960s civil rights movement and Rakotoson as a 21-year-old transplant to the US.
Watson recalled vividly the day that Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. He was in the middle of a lecture on racism at the University of Pittsburgh when his wife called with the news.
“I brought the class to a closure. There was no way I was capable of going on,” Watson said.
An activist at heart, he convinced an initially reluctant university president to cancel classes for the day, hold a memorial service in King’s honor and create a scholarship for needy students who wanted to study nonviolence.
Watson has lived at the BridgePoint for three years, which he describes as a “good challenge.” He was visibly enlivened by talking with a young person as interested in history and political activism as he is.
Rakotoson, curious and soft spoken, did not listen passively to Watson’s steady flow of historical anecdotes. He jumps in with questions and comments as their conversation progressed from civil rights in the 1960s to Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey’s “back to Africa” movement to the achievements of the soccer greats Lionel Messi and Pele. Rakotoson remembered details from their last visit, asking about Watson’s children’s work and the family’s travel plans.
“I love talking to seniors,” Rakotoson said. “I think they have a lot of wisdom to share. Because I’m not from here … they’re helping me to see how is life, to give me advice.”
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