For some, it has been years since they have seen their grandparents or loved ones due to the COVID-19 pandemic, substituting birthday bashes for Zoom parties and quality time with phone calls.
Michigan State University students who miss spending time with their family at home can opt to volunteer with the Tri-County Office of Aging, or TCOA, which provides opportunities for different generations to interact and connect.
“All of the fundraising that we do helps support Meals on Wheels, crisis services for people who have utility shut off notices or prescription shortfalls,” fundraising and volunteer specialist Casey Cooper said. “Our evidence-based health and wellness programs for people who are experiencing chronic pain, trouble with falls, diabetes and our information and assistance program ... We try to be out there … but there's so much more to it at TCOA.”
The TCOA is an active part of the East Lansing community that helps promote senior living with grace through different services.
Partnering with Michigan State University, there are many opportunities for students to help the aging community through fundraising in the form of Friends for Independence, or FFI, which raises donations for TCOA services that help people with disabilities.
Other volunteering options are medical assistance programs, providing aid to grandparents raising their grandchildren and Meals on Wheels – which provides nourishing food. TCOA is always in need of drivers to help volunteer, as well as donations that impact families in need.
TCOA, a non-profit, is an area agency on aging, which is a federal designation from the federal government. This means they receive some federal and state funding. But, that funding is sometimes not enough to maintain TCOA's services.
“Most of the needs that we are seeing, federal funding doesn’t keep up with those," Cooper said. "So, that’s where fundraising comes in.”
Whether it’s life experiences to pass along to new generations or advice to share, over 56% of adults over the age of 50 reported feeling isolated from others as to 27% in 2018 before the pandemic began, according to a national poll from the University of Michigan.
At the same time, loneliness and isolation is a growing issue for both the elderly community – and the youth. A fall data report in 2020 by Boston University revealed that more than ever, college level students are facing higher levels of stress and depression than any other generation. In a two-week period, 39% of 33,000 students examined had a form of depression, while 18% reported moderate levels of anxiety.
With over 52,000 volunteer hours in 2020 available for young adults to participate in and engage in the community, there are options for all types of schedules to participate.
The Friendly Reassurance Callers program at TCOA connects local older adults to chat and talk to volunteers once a week over the phone. The purpose of the program is to reach out and connect to isolated members of the community on a weekly basis. This social interaction may seem like a quick and comforting chat to a student but to the aging members in the community, it may be the highlight of their week.
“The Friendly Reassurance Program, that’s for people who would like to make phone calls. You can do it at home and use your own phone – you’re calling a list of folks about once a week for that check in and chat,” Cooper said. “So it’s another one of those social (opportunities) to help reduce isolation that people are facing still.”
Biochemistry & genomics junior Dilyn Heslinga said while he has seen both sets of his grandparents recently (2.05), he can see the value in the Friendly Reassurance Callers program.
“I talk to my grandparents a bunch during the week,” Heslinga said. “So, it would be really interesting either for myself or for others to have that opportunity to reach out to these other elderly people. It’s something I could definitely like to look into and I feel it is a great opportunity … for students who don’t have an older figure in their life if they just need somebody to talk to.”
According to the 2020 census report, over 13% of Lansing’s community is age 65+, an overlooked margin in most college students' eyes. Like many aging adults since the start of COVID-19, these members of the community are 25 times more at risk of death than 18-29-year-olds, according to the Center for Disease Control. These members of the community may not have the opportunity to step outdoors and go shopping for themselves, where volunteers come into importance.
“The Meals on Wheels food that goes out has been going out a couple days a week,” Cooper said. "Now what they’re doing is opening up the Monday through Friday routes kind of staggered so that we can have once again volunteers going out each day to these folks. The daily check in is so important.”
Students at the university can also learn from the TCOA and take back home with them useful knowledge when taking care of their family members – over 5 million college students across America are caregivers to their relatives at home, according to AARP. Caregiving resources are available through a self-paced online learning tool for better preparing new caregivers and offering courses around caregiving.
TCOA offers several workshops for students to partake in for no cost. The dementia consultations workshop focuses on identifying and educating about dementia, the Confident Caregivers workshop nurtures skills and stress management for long-term caregiving and the Powerful Tools workshop empowers and focuses on the needs of the family caregiver to take better care of themselves while caring for a family or friend. Sign-ups and starting dates for these workshops including more can be found at TCOA.org
“If they’re looking for some of the wisdom, a lot elderly people today have that – especially some first generation students might not have any experience with anyone in their life who's gone to a secondary education,” Heslinga said. “I’m guessing there are plenty of people within this program that have experience with college or other jobs that could definitely provide some wisdom.”
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