COVID-19 has created a seismic shift in the way people connect with friends and family, occupy their free time and receive their health care. People over 65 years of age—many living with chronic health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the virus—may be acutely affected by the guidelines on physical distancing and restrictions on in-person meetings. And, while younger generations migrate to online platforms to stay connected, some senior citizens feel uncomfortable and intimidated by technology.

Molly Vespa, RN
Molly Vespa, RN, director of the Connect to Wellness Program. 

“Loneliness and lack of social connection can have a huge impact on a person’s health,” said Molly Vespa, RN, director of the Mass General's Center for Community Health Improvement’s Connect to Wellness Program. “Add to that the isolation imposed by COVID-19, and we had significant concerns about our residents’ mental health and emotional well-being.”

The Connect to Wellness program—which focuses on the health and well-being of more than 400 seniors and disabled adults living in the Beacon House, Amy Lowell Apartments and Blackstone Apartments near the hospital’s main campus—aimed to address some of these concerns.

Based on the national Cyber Seniors model, high school students employed at Mass General through Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Summer Jobs Program were paired with two older adults over the course of four weeks. The students were mentored by Arriana Hall-Gregory, a graduate of the MGH Youth Scholars Program. “This initiative provided an opportunity for these young people to put their tech expertise to good use by mentoring older adults on how to navigate technical gadgets and the internet,” says Vespa. “It was also an opportunity to connect and share life experiences during this challenging time.”

Feedback about the pilot program was extremely positive. Students said they learned about connecting with others, being prepared and patient, resourceful and how to adapt in unfamiliar situations. And participants not only received some helpful guidance, but also a connection to youth in the area.

“I am so very glad you talked me into joining Cyber Seniors,” said Sheila Michaels, a resident of Amy Lowell Apartments. “I thought I was pretty savvy, but my student taught me so very much I wouldn't have gotten on my own. He was positive and helpful—I can't say enough about the good things that happened in four short weeks.”