Desire to give something back to society motivates both the young volunteers and the seniors taking part in an innovative pandemic-relief effort. From Atlatszo.

“How are you today?” Elderly Hungarians forced by COVID-19 to stay within their four walls hear this question often these days, in phone conversations reminiscent of customary exchanges between grandparents and grandchildren. But that’s not what they are. On the other end of the line is a volunteer who has pledged to talk four to five hours a week with a stranger.

While seniors have spent their days holed up at home during the pandemic, youths too have faced an unprecedented situation. In addition to having to adjust to e-learning, thrust upon them without much preparation, they have been barred from meeting up with friends, playing sports, or just going out to have fun.

To address this parallel and lend a helping hand to both the elderly and young people deprived of access to the wider community and their social connections, two non-profits launched the How Are You Today? program. It pairs young people with seniors who could use someone to talk to.

Seniors in Solitude

The program has had good take-up so far. No wonder, as around 700,000 of Hungary’s total population of 10 million are people aged 65 or older who live alone.

On 11 March, the government declared a state of emergency. Travel restrictions were introduced; public venues such as libraries and theaters were closed. These were followed by further efforts to enforce social distancing: school was suspended; a curfew was imposed; people were told to go out only when absolutely necessary.

Since both scientific research and the initial experience with the virus showed that the elderly or those with chronic preconditions were the most at-risk segments of the population, these groups especially were urged to stay put.

For those without family members to provide logistical assistance, municipal governments, welfare service providers, and various aid organizations sought to offer help in the form of shopping, running errands, and providing protective equipment. But scant attention was paid to mental health.

Volunteers for the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, via the Facebook page of the organization.

Elderly people lost their social life – even if it had been minimal – and opportunities to meet with loved ones or friends. They found themselves in isolating situations, unable to get in touch with anyone for days on end.

Two Organizations Join Forces

The Festival Volunteer Center has been recruiting young people for 10 years to become involved in summer music festivals and other events. The number of volunteers fluctuates. There are some “old” hands, while new ones join all the time. Last year, its volunteer database counted some 2,000 names. Access to such a pre-existing database proved to be a major asset for those who dreamed up How Are You Today?

“Every major event in the country was canceled because of the epidemic, and some of the restrictions may stay in place even throughout the summer,” said Reka Nagy, CEO of the Festival Volunteer Center and one of the How Are You Today? creators. “These were not only events where youths went to chill and have fun, but also events where many of them went to volunteer. We thought a lot about what we could offer them instead as opportunities to become engaged, to spend their time usefully – and that’s when the idea of getting in touch with others over the phone came to us.”

The effort to connect youths with the elderly while both were under compulsory lockdown was launched with a two-pronged approach. First, the Volunteer Center announced the program in a newsletter to the volunteers in its database. The organization co-managing the project, the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta (the Maltese Aid Service), offered a free phone helpline.

“Many were very happy to hear about the opportunity, and this early success spurred us to try to expand the circle of people we could involve,” said Lajos Gyori-Dani, executive vice president of the Maltese Aid Service.

A news release about the program spread the news further, Nagy said. “Thanks to the newsletter and the press attention, 350 volunteers contacted us within the first few days, saying they wanted to get involved.” More than 100 seniors expressed interest, and about 70 pairs have been matched to date.   

The young volunteers must be aged over 16 and go through an application process. Then they study materials and guidelines prepared by professionals in the field of counseling.

Both the applicants and the seniors who expressed an interest were asked whether they would prefer to talk to women or men. Women have predominated, both among the elderly and the young participants; this reflects underlying demographic statistics, which show that in 2017, 46 percent of women 65 or older lived alone, compared to 20 percent of men in that age group.  

Respecting Boundaries

The program aims to offer “supportive personal conversations” to seniors, to help alleviate loneliness and insecurity, Nagy said. “It is important for them to talk about issues that are interesting for both parties and that can cheer them up.”

Talking to a stranger requires a different mindset than ordinary conversations with relatives. The topics can be wide-ranging, from cooking to how online messaging works, but certain boundaries must be respected.

“What matters most in this context is that the elderly participants get a sense that someone cares about them, that they are not alone, that someone is paying attention and listening to them,” said Anita Buzas-Kovacs, a career coach and mentor. The volunteers are advised to steer clear of issues such as grieving, illnesses, or mood swings. “This is not a mental help hotline,” Buzas-Kovacs said. “We respect our boundaries, and if we find that we need help on issues outside our area of expertise, we recommend the expert or service needed in that context.”

Another challenge is that over time, participants grow accustomed to these chats; they become a part of the elderly participants’ daily routine. As a result, when the conversation veers toward the possibility that the talks will come to an end sometime, issues such as loneliness and fear of death can emerge. In such instances the volunteers can turn to the Volunteer Center’s experts for assistance.

No one listens in on the conversations, but some supervision is necessary. After each phone chat the youths fill out a feedback form. The surveys help organizers monitor the program and make adjustments where necessary.

Buzas-Kovacs said it is too early to assess how well the program has worked, though feedback after more than 200 completed calls has been positive.

The participating youths quickly came to embrace the program, Nagy said. Some young people applied because they were bored during the lockdown, while others were looking for a good cause to engage in during the crisis. Many said they joined because of the relationship with their own grandparents – or the lack thereof. There were also those who said they wanted the elderly to feel needed.

Volunteer Tunde Nagy, 29, learned about the program from an internet article. “I’ve seen countless videos recently about how the elderly population have been barred from doing virtually anything outside,” she said. “They can’t go anywhere, they can’t meet anyone, not even their loved ones, to make sure that they don’t get infected by their family. … I tried to imagine what this situation might be like for them.”

Mentors from the Festival Volunteer Center, via the Facebook page of the organization.

She soon found herself holding the phone in her hand and ready to place her first call.

“At first, I experienced it as an assignment,” she said. “I was a bit ill at ease, even though I often talk to strangers in my line of work. We had been told during the training that we always need to approach the other party with attentive empathy, to let them talk, since we are not the key characters here –  they are. But once we became acquainted, it all changed.”

After completing four phone calls Tunde said she felt a close bond had developed between her and her partner, and this had her concerned.

“We have touched on every issue imaginable in our conversations: how things used to be back in the day, what they are like now, everyday life, foods, drinks – whatever came to mind,” she said. “A conversation is generally about two hours, and we never run out of things to say. Sadly, my own grandparents are no longer with us, and it’s great for me to talk to someone who is about as old as they would be. That’s what makes me anxious – what will happen when the program comes to an end?”

The contact between each pair was planned to span at least three months, she said, but she is not sure whether it will last that long as restrictions ease. “I’d be very happy if we could stay in touch once the program ends. We wouldn’t necessarily be talking as we do now, but I would like to continue our chats since we have grown genuinely fond of each other.”

Cooking and Conversation

Retired educator Jolan Voros is on the receiving end of the phone calls. She lost her spouse last December, after nursing him at home for months. She doesn’t have a regular social circle, and one of her children lives in another city while the other travels across Europe for work. Thus, when the state of emergency was imposed, the former teacher was all alone. Although she didn’t feel weighed down by the forced lockdown, the conversations are bright spots in her daily life.

“I always look forward to our next ‘meeting’ – it cheers me up,” she told Atlatszo. “I like her voice; I can almost picture her. She could be my daughter or my grandchild. It turns out that we have some things in common; that’s why they matched us up. We have talked so much already; we have cooked together, and she even helped me set up the Wi-Fi on my laptop – over the phone. When the program started, I didn’t quite know what to expect. It’s something completely novel, after all. But now, it’s hard to imagine how it could be any better than this! I am happy that we can talk freely about anything, even our own lives – that’s probably the best part.”

Voros said the program gives participants the opportunity to open up and talk about themselves more candidly; sometimes it is easier to talk to a stranger than to someone we know. She said she hopes to meet her phone companion sometime. The program doesn’t rule it out.

“We might extend such an opportunity at some point,” Gyori-Dani said. “We are responsible for the program, and especially the safety of the elderly who are involved, which means that we can only move forward if we comply with certain rules.”

The program doesn’t give out participants’ addresses, to forestall any type of potential abuse.

“We use codes to keep track of the participating seniors in our database,” Buzas-Kovacs explained. “There was a situation when someone wanted the address of a young volunteer to return their kindness with a present, and they wanted to send it by mail. For obvious reasons, that runs afoul of the rules of the game.”   

Amaryl Arkovits, a psychiatrist and psychotherapy trainer who manages the SOS Life Hotline in the southwestern Hungarian city of Pecs, said the program needs to take a long view. “It is important for the organizers to consider carefully where they go from here, since it is likely that a psychological relationship, a bond, will develop between the partners,” she said.

“In my opinion, the program works well for supporting older people who have been forced into a situation where they feel lonely and isolated. But the question is what happens when it ends. How will the lonely older people deal with their sense of loss when the previously intense conversations are potentially disrupted? What happens, when – this being voluntary work – the volunteer drops out? Who will converse with the elderly person who received this form of support until then?

“These are not just numbers; there is a person at one end of the line, and another on the other end of the line,” she said.

It is important to teach the volunteers how to say goodbye and to ensure that the entire program is carefully supervised throughout, Arkovits added. “In a situation when someone talked with [the seniors] for hours each week and then suddenly no longer does, they are likely to occasionally grieve for the lost conversation partner. One must always be mindful of this to make sure that assistance extended at a given moment of need doesn’t end up backfiring.” 

Working on Sustainability

The Festival Volunteer Center and the Maltese Aid Service hope to keep the program going indefinitely. Sustainability is the greatest challenge; even though the phone calls are placed by volunteers, the professional services cost money.

The organizations are exploring several options to secure long-term funding. On 19 May they opened a fundraising campaign, Let’s All Kick In; donors receive special incentives depending on the amount they contribute.

Another fundraising tool involves recruiting prominent figures to promote a topic (e.g., a renowned chef will be asked to talk about gastronomy) on social media, while introducing the program and asking their followers to contribute.

“A group of seven or eight professionals has invested a lot of work in launching this program,” said project coordinator Nagy. “But it has grown, and now we have a responsibility for the several hundreds of people who are involved. We trust that people will come to share the sense of how joyful, energizing, and vital the project is and will support its continued operation.”

The program is not only about reducing the isolation and loneliness of seniors. Gyori-Dani found that the desire to give something back was at least as strong a motivation for the elderly as it was for the young people.

“They sense that there is something mutual going on here, an opportunity for them to help too,” he said. “They want to give something, to become more engaged – that’s what motivated many of them to join. The youths also gain experience and knowledge from these conversations, which makes the experience just as important for them as it is for the elderly.

“The generations need one another, regardless of the epidemic. We hope that the bonds that are being forged now will last for a long time to come, and that they will continue to bring a lot of joy into everyone’s life.”

Eszter Katus is a journalist with Atlatszo, a Hungarian watchdog NGO and online newspaper for investigative journalism. She has reported on corruption and state capture in Hungary, among other topics.

A longer version of this article originally appeared on Atlatszo. Translated by Gabor Gyori. The publication of this article was supported by Transitions and Mertek Media Monitor.