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USD students befriending isolated seniors with 'Wellness Calls'

From toilet paper checks, to WIFI assistance, some students and seniors have become lifelong friends.

SAN DIEGO — When you're living in social isolation, sometimes it's nice to just get a call. In this Zevely Zone, I learned about a 'Wellness Program' at the University of San Diego that is befriending seniors.

Last April, Dr. Wendell Callahan, a professor at U.S.D. noticed a need at a parish he attends to reach out to isolated seniors. In April, University of San Diego counseling graduate students began making regular wellness calls to senior citizen parishioners to make sure they had everything they needed during the pandemic.

Credit: USD Wellness Call Program

Seniors like 81-year-old, Eileen Ward, started receiving wellness calls from students like Teodora Dillard. "With this pandemic, I feel like a lot of us are very isolated and it's good to be able to know that you have someone to call every week," said Teodora.

Credit: USD Wellness Call Program

The two have become fast friends. "Christians always fast," joked Eileen. She is a straight shooter and she loves how Zoom forces people to stare at each other straight in the face.

"Because people don't look at each other. They don't look at their body language, they don't look at their eyes," said Eileen. "I think the great boon of the digital age is that it has kept people in touch with each other in this extraordinary time."

Credit: USD Wellness Call Program

Eileen is a member of the St. Brigid Parish where USD students are staying connected to 40 seniors with weekly calls. What started as an educational opportunity and a positive way to connect with the senior citizen community, turned into friendships -- with both the USD students and seniors gaining benefits from their weekly conversations during a physically-distant time.

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Eileen described what the quarantine has been like for her. "Well, it's been a series of adaptabilities," the 81-year-old said. Eileen insists these COVID connections are real.

"In fact, I have had more intimate conversations and interactions this way than when I am in someone's living room with the dog barking and the noise of the daily life of a busy household," said Eileen.

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What may have started off with students checking to see if the seniors were stocked up on toilet paper or needed help with WIFI has evolved into lifelong friendships. Eileen and Teodora share some very deep conversations. "Yes, we do, yes our conversations are pretty long too like 30 or 40 minutes because we do have these long conversations," said Teodora.

Eileen was a Humanities Professor for 37 years. I asked her how she felt humanity is doing in a pandemic. "Well, when we take the time through the humanities to learn each other's cultures we are doing pretty well," said Eileen. "The one virtue that obviously is required to get through a circumstance that we are living through right now is hope."

Teodora is a USD graduate student in School-Based Clinical Counseling. She calls several seniors each week, some calls are bi-weekly.

"It's almost a break in my day where I get to have a person-to-person interaction that I usually wouldn't get to have especially during this time in COVID, so just knowing that I'll be able to call four to eight people a week and make those human connections has actually been pretty helpful in my state-of-mind and even self-care practices a little bit too," said Teodora.

The students are asked to commit to making calls for an academic year. Even after the pandemic ends there is no known end date for the program.