Despite Closed Doors, Generations Connect

How one Manhattan teen's idea is helping seniors feel less alone at home

18 Apr 2020 | 05:18

Suzie Linchon has been struggling to pass the time since her senior assisted living center, Yorkville Gardens, closed its doors to visitors last month in an effort to protect residents from the novel coronavirus.

The Upper East Side resident is originally from Taiwan, and spoke to Straus News with the assistance of a Mandarin interpreter, but she didn’t need help describing her COVID-19 social distancing experience.

“So boring!” she exclaimed.

One bright spot in her week came in the form of a phone call from Christine Xu.

The call was a test run for Generations Connect—or GensConnect, for short—a project Xu created to link seniors to high school-age partners for weekly conversations and support.

“I kind of came up with it because my grandparents live in China, and I'm really close to them. I know how scary it can be to be an older person during an epidemic like this,” Xu told Straus News. “So we, my family, we talk to them and call them and it kind of helps both sides feel a little safer and more assured about the whole situation.”

At just 16 years old, Xu has already established herself a force for good. Along with keeping up her studies at The Chapin School, she was a regular volunteer at the Holy Apostle Soup Kitchen in Lower Manhattan since 2018, until social distancing forced her to stay home.

The virus also put a damper on her plans to attend a social sciences-focused summer program at Yale University entitled “Solving Global Challenges,” but Xu kept a positive mindset.

“I mean, there's already like a global challenge here, so why not try to solve it now?” Xu explained.

Linchon and Xu’s first conversation was brief but very enjoyable according to both parties. They introduced themselves and Linchon asked Xu about her grandparents in China.

Starting Small

Generations Connect has found a great supporter in Linda Hoffman, president of the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens, which manages a number of senior centers and “enriched housing” programs around town, including the building where Linchon lives.

Generations Connect is starting small, as Xu and Hoffman establish methods for vetting volunteers.

“We're doing it very carefully, very slowly,” Hoffman explained. “We're being very protective of our seniors. But we're also recognizing who would be the most appropriate and trying to match appropriately.”

Madison Cohen, 16, was an early GensConnect volunteer, helping get the program off the ground. She was paired with Mary Elizabeth Dee, a resident at another one of the foundation’s buildings on the Upper East Side.

Dee and Cohen found mutual interest in their love of art — Ms. Dee is a visual artist, while Cohen enjoys photography.

“I really enjoyed learning about her career since she was a teacher and then also worked for a magazine. I think it was cool to see that she had both of those jobs,” Cohen told Straus News following the call. The pair planned to talk again Monday.

Xu has more volunteers ready hop on the phone and Hoffman’s team is matching them with their resident seniors. Both sides hope GensConnect will lead to friendships that provide comfort through the pandemic, and eventually outlast it.

“After coronavirus is over, I'm hoping that we could meet the seniors face-to-face, kind of a group field trip, and talk in person,” said Xu.

Until then, Generations Connect is already “removing feelings of isolation and loneliness” according to Hoffman. “It gives support. It gives a new outlook on life and it gives a connection. There's social connection rather than social distancing.”

Gens Connect: https://www.gensconnect.com

"After coronavirus is over, I'm hoping that we could meet the seniors face-to-face, kind of a group field trip, and talk in person.” Chapin student Christine Xu