“During the coronavirus lockdown, we want to keep seniors company with lighthearted conversation and stories from across the ocean, to ease their anxiety and their worries,” AirJulep founder Deana Gao says. AirJulep is the company behind Support From Afar – a non-profit project which aims to provide companionship for seniors who are isolated from loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic.

The novel coronavirus has impacted the whole world, but this pandemic has been particularly challenging for older people. Forced to accept uncertainty and sudden lifestyle changes, the average person has to deal with confusion, anxiety and frustration in the wake of the coronavirus. Seniors face even more anxiety since they are a high-risk group. Due to social distancing measures, seniors also cannot interact physically with their loved ones. Many aging people thrive on social activities, so the sense of isolation caused by social distancing makes them more susceptible to depression.

INSPIRATION

Inspired by the idea of connecting seniors and youth worldwide, Deana founded AirJulep in 2019 to provide companionship to seniors while helping young students improve their spoken English. When the coronavirus broke out, Deana realized seniors were having a hard time because the face-to-face engagement which they depend on was suddenly limited. “We already had the platform in place, and we saw an opportunity to leverage it to help those in need,” she says. “It’s a tough time for seniors and we want to put smiles on their faces.”

With “Support From Afar,” AirJulep connects seniors who are isolated from family and friends with young volunteers who are passionate about supporting and providing companionship to older people. Each student adopts a senior and devotes time to calling that person regularly throughout the lockdown period. Signing up takes only two minutes and the program is completely free. Phone calls can be received on a landline or a cell phone. Deana hopes that the emotional connection cultivated through these phone calls will add colour to the lives of seniors during this difficult time.

PROCESS

All applicants are interviewed to determine whether they are a good fit for the project. “Originally, we were recruiting volunteers from within our current members, but soon we started receiving applications from outside the company,” she explains. Once AirJulep staff receive an application, they hold a three to five-minute interview with the applicant to test their fluency in English, gauge their attitude and find out what their availability is.

Applicants who pass the English test and have a positive attitude are guided through a comprehensive training program. AirJulep invites successful applicants to join an online focus group. The company sends these applicants a training manual with conversation guidelines and the steps to take in an emergency. “Before an applicant starts working, we carry out weekly one-hour training sessions to work through the manual with them and answer any questions,” Deana says. “We also communicate with them on a daily basis and they can reach out to us any time.”

Deana explains that “Support From Afar” is built largely on trust. Most of the current clients were connected to the program through word of mouth, so the trust was established prior to them joining the platform. The company also has systems in place to protect personal data. “We engage AI to detect fraud, crime and abuse,” Deana elaborates. “We also monitor all calls and have strict protocols in place to ensure that the conversations remain positive experiences for both our seniors and our students.”

CONNECTION

While “Support From Afar” was developed to help seniors, both seniors and students can benefit from a sense of connection and companionship right now. Through the phone calls seniors can enjoy making new connections and listening to stories about different cultures and life abroad. The students can also improve their English and benefit from the life experience and wisdom shared by seniors who they connect with. “We hosted our first ever volunteer onboarding program in April and our volunteers are already excited to meet friends across the globe,” Deana says.

For many seniors, social distancing means they’re home alone and away from their loved ones. It’s no surprise that the sense of isolation we’re all experiencing can be downright overwhelming for seniors. By connecting seniors with warm-hearted youth and fostering inter-generational friendships, “Support From Afar” could alleviate feelings of anxiety, depression and loneliness.

THE FUTURE OF AIRJULEP

Deana is optimistic about AirJulep’s growth beyond the coronavirus pandemic. “We will carry on our project of connecting seniors with youth even after the pandemic,” she emphasizes. “Support From Afar” is currently open to seniors from the US, UK, Canada, Ireland and Australia, and students from China, Japan, and South Korea. “In the next stage, we will be expanding to more countries and more audiences – including disabled people – and involving more languages,” Deana says. “We are also designing a “language buddy” program where seniors and disabled people can be trained to become a “language buddy” and earn money from teaching other people foreign languages.”

AirJulep ultimately hopes to build a global, multicultural and inter-generational community. “Support From Afar” couldn’t have come at a better time. At a time when we could all use a friend, Deana and her team are helping us be alone together.

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