South Bay teens’ online platform connects senior citizens

COVID Networks provides socializing opportunities for old folks

Some South Bay teens are having success with an online network they established that’s connecting stressed and isolated seniors with young volunteers during the pandemic.

Founded and created by Cupertino High School seniors Alex Wang, Sivansh Chitti, Lawrence Fan and Pranav Eranki, COVID Networks is a platform that’s been put to good use at Fremont’s Priya Living, a senior community where residents have learned to socialize using computer screens.

Describing the network as a place where meaningful interactions are created, Eranki points to the difference between meeting seniors just one time and calling them repeatedly a couple times a week: “Actually getting to know them deeper builds a much better connection,” Eranki said.

The platform provides more than conversation, too. Priya Living residents may sign up for group activities including yoga, book clubs, live music performances and games.

Fan said yoga sessions are popular, growing from an initial four or five seniors in attendance to an “amazing” full Zoom room of 25 people.

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In September, seniors and COVID Networks volunteers played a spirited game of Bollywood Jeopardy with Priya Living over Zoom, with the final score of 2,300-800.

COVID Networks currently has about 300 active volunteers from across the world who have connected with some 3,000 seniors to date.

Volunteers are encouraged to share their unique talents with the seniors. Fan said one gifted, passionate young musician connected with other musicians and together they shared their love of music with the seniors.

Chitti said the seniors, typically in contact only with other seniors, feel rejuvenated after connecting with the volunteers, who are happy to talk to them, want to get to know them, and truly care about their well-being.

Keyatta Shade, director of volunteer services at the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Senior Living, an assisted living center in The City, is also working with COVID Networks. Shade said the young volunteers are helping with the nonprofit national StoryCorps program, in which in-depth interviews with seniors are recorded and stored in the Library of Congress.

In a pilot program, COVID Networks volunteers are speaking online with seniors about their experiences with the pandemic, and learning about ways to keep them afloat while they’re isolated.

Shade said the senior center’s association with StoryCorps may help COVID Networks increase its platform, as well.

COVID Networks co-founder Lawrence Fan visits senior centers to pitch the program’s services and secure partnerships with residences across California. (Courtesy photo)

COVID Networks co-founder Lawrence Fan visits senior centers to pitch the program’s services and secure partnerships with residences across California. (Courtesy photo)

Meanwhile, Mahesh Nihalani, community director at Priya Living, said the virtual contact COVID Networks has provided during this unprecedented time has made a big difference in the morale of the seniors, who are making friends while hunkered down at home.

“It brought so much brightness [and happiness] in their lives, and they were no longer feeling lonely. They were looking forward to these programs, especially talking and interacting with the younger people,” said Nihalani. They’re wonderful seniors. They are keeping healthy and happy, and having the fun of life.”

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