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Covid Companions

Virginia Tech

When COVID-19 began changing everyone’s lives in the winter of 2020, the town of Blacksburg started planning ahead. It mobilized resources and created a coalition of public officials, academics, and volunteers to keep health and safety measures going out there. But one man was concerned that there was more that needed to be done for the community, something not so easily seen. 

After the initial shock of a COVID pandemic, it wasn’t long before many people found ways to adapt to their new normals, but for elders who might have limited mobility, it was a different story and a problem that might have gone unnoticed. Pam Teaster directs the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech.  "It really arose from the police chief, knowing this was an issue, a problem, particularly for older adults who were less technologically savvy and, or somewhat isolated.”

“People were so concerned about the very basics of the COVID virus and the response you kind of started to miss that there were segments of our society that were suffering greatly.” Said Blacksburg Police Chief Anthony Wilson.

“Because the pandemic caused so many different ripples that were getting kind of glossed over, we started saying, ‘how many people are we missing’?

As chief, Wilson has come to know a lot of people in town, a lot of older people, that he comes in contact with, some homebound, and who don’t always have access to devices like tablets or smart phones. He brought the issue to Teaster and 2 weeks, later Grad students Laura York and Emily Hoyt along with working with classmate Callyn Niesen, came up with a volunteer-based program called Covid Companions.

“Some of our volunteers are students, some are community members,” Hoyt explains.  “and they simply just call their older adult once a week for at least 30 minutes. And they talk about all kinds of things, whatever they want, and develop that friendship.”

The companions also offer the all-important technology assistance.

“And we teach them how to use it. And this allows them to increase social support, not only with their companion, but also with other friends and family members. And their doctors, medical professionals, and other community resources.”

Virginia Tech Biosystems Engineering student, Kirin Anand signed up to be a companion. He grew up with loving grandparents whom, he says, mean so much to him. He’s planning to become a doctor.

“ So, when I first called her, I honestly wasn't too sure what to expect. I'd never done something like this before, I guess, but like right off the bat, she was like exuding energy, just super out there. Honestly, she's incredibly wise. And the biggest thing I got from this, like truly is that I get just as much, if not more out of this than she does, which I was totally not expecting. And I thought this would be something where I'm able to help another person. And granted that is probably true.”

But, he adds, she is “just incredibly joyful to talk to, is very, very smart. She was in the healthcare profession too. So, it's been really helpful learning about her advice and her life experiences. We've talked about everything from love, relationships, death, family, the virus and just everything in between.”

“The the pandemic has given us a lot of opportunities to see what's going wrong and a lot of opportunities to highlight things, that have caused us pain or suffering or inconvenience, says Chief Wilson.

“But the pandemic has given us an opportunity, highlighting what we should be doing on a day-to-day basis. It showed us the problems we had with food insecurity. It's showed us the isolation piece. And, you know, it's been a tough year for all of us, but I, I look at how much good we've gotten out of we've returned to that, that neighbor serving neighbor, we're checking on each other. Again, we're taking care of the folks who need to be taken care of.”

So far 50 they’ve distributed 50 Hd Fire Tablets for elders, thanks to the Cares Act, and another 50 are expected in the next few weeks.

Click Here for more on Virginia Tech's COVID COMPANIONS project.

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.


Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.