The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Recent CHC Graduate Among Volunteers Leading Elder Companionship Project

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During these uncertain and unprecedented times it may seem like there's only so much the typical person can do to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Colleen Ward—a 2020 Commonwealth Honors graduate receiving her B.S. in communication disorders—and the Elder Companionship Project are going above and beyond to provide messages of hope to those in need. The initiative reaches out to those who are most socially distant, such as nursing home residents and staff, spreading kind words and fostering friendships.

“For people in nursing homes, they can’t see their families, they can’t see their friends, they can’t necessarily see other residents that they spend time with,” Ward said. “They’re stuck where they are, so this is important to give them some kind of social exposure and communication outside of where they are.”

In partnership with the Massachusetts Senior Care Association (MSCA), the Elder Companionship Project, founded by professor of communication disorders Karen Helfer, has created video montages sharing messages of hope, inspiration, and gratitude for both nursing home residents and staff. The videos are just one piece of many included in the Companionship initiative, which also writes letters and video chats with residents.

“I was looking for a way to reach out to older adults,” Dr. Helfer said. “I knew that older adults are really isolated now because they’re basically not allowed out of rooms and they can’t have visitors. I was trying to look for a way to combat and deal with that involving students, so I came up with the idea of doing video chats and letter writing.”

Colleen’s relationship with Dr. Helfer began in her sophomore year when she took an Honors-level colloquium course in audiology. Though Dr. Helfer often works with graduate students, the colloquium experience allowed Colleen and Dr. Helfer to grow closer, with professor Helfer reaching out to Colleen as one of the first people to help her initiate the Project.

During her time at UMass, Colleen served as the president of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association (NSSLHA) on campus, which promotes professional development as well as providing awareness of communication disorders. Her leadership in the association helped her and Dr. Helfer quickly gain volunteers for the Elder Companionship Project, which now includes over seventy volunteers from the School of Public Health & Health Sciences, other departments at UMass, and beyond.

“I’ve had quite a few people ask me if their friends who are not UMass students could join,” said Helfer. “We’ve pretty much said ‘sure,’ and we do give people guidelines for writing the letters, including content we suggest and what to avoid. But we’ve opened up the letter and card writing to other people because the need is so great.”

In some manner, the Project is allowing volunteers and care facility residents to act as pen pals.

Volunteers have been writing letters to residents at ten different facilities throughout Western Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and select facilities have allowed students to video chat with residents. The Elder Companionship Project is looking to expand its reach wider throughout the state, including to facilities in Hampden County and beyond.

“Even if you can’t see them face to face, it’s cool to learn about someone else’s life,” Colleen said. “Not only how they’re dealing with [the Covid-19 situation] but other factors of their life, like things they want to do in the future or things they’ve done in the past.”

Despite not being able to help provide medical care like the many brave nurses and doctors fighting the pandemic, the Elder Companionship Project provides much needed relief.

“When we see the commercials, we immediately think of the nurses and the doctors and whoever is helping on the frontlines medically,” said Colleen. “But if you do want to help or do something, it’s important to think a little bit outside the box. With this project, it’s something relatively small you can do for somebody else.”

For Helfer, the goal has been to let students provide help from the safety of their homes, lessening the risk of spreading Covid-19 to older adults or others who may be vulnerable. It was heartwarming for her to see how open and enthusiastic the activity directors at each elderly facility were to collaborating with the initiative.

“If you just think about what people’s lives are like during the pandemic and how you can make a difference, this is such a little thing. But these little things can really make a big difference in lives,” said Helfer. “Even if you can do a little bit to help a few people, I think that makes them feel good and it makes you feel good [too].”

Helfer hopes that the Elder Companionship Project lives on past the unforeseen end of the pandemic, allowing volunteers to continue their relationships with residents, and potentially allow them to meet in-person.

Outside the Elder Companionship Project, Colleen Ward completed her honors thesis, “The Effect of Aphasia ID Cards on Neurotypical Comprehension of Aphasic Language,” during her senior year and will continue her research this summer assisting in the Neuroscience of Language and Aphasia Lab under Professor Jennifer Mack. She will also continue her studies at UMass this fall, pursuing a master’s degree in speech-language pathology. Colleen hopes to gain more clinical experience during grad school and one day work with children.

No matter how big or small a student's role in the Project, it has given a voice and opportunity for volunteers to spread joy and comfort in a time that desperately calls for it.

“Students have been very creative,” said Helfer about participation in the Project. “Some students make artwork and send it, some involve their younger siblings and pets. I think it’s really given students a forum and opportunity to be creative and feel good about what they’re doing.”

If you are interested in joining the Elder Companionship Project, you are welcome to email Dr. Helfer at khelfer@commdis.umass.edu to join the mailing list.