When Geoffrey Sem (Class of 2T2) was in Grade 9, he volunteered at the nursing home where his grandfather lived. He entertained the residents with his breakdancing moves and by playing concertos on his violin. And if Cantonese or Mandarin was a resident’s primary language, he would make a point of conversing with them in their native tongue.
While Sem was volunteering at the nursing home, he learned how you can help older adults feel valued and included by simply showing up.
In 2019, in his first year of Medicine at U of T, Sem and two other med students, Monisha Persaud and Victoria O’Driscoll, co-founded the MedSoc community affairs club Student-Senior Isolation Prevention Partnership (SSIPP). The importance of its mission is backed by research that has shown that social isolation is a bigger health risk than inactivity, obesity, or smoking. Social isolation can lead to a wide range of problems – from weight loss, to dementia, and even to suicide.
In a collaboration between U of T medical students and the Family Health Team at Toronto Western Hospital, those early student volunteers were each partnered with an older person in the community who they would regularly visit. The students did more than visit. They helped in myriad other ways, such as teaching them how to FaceTime on their cellphone, and connecting them with the financial, legal, recreational, and other services they wanted.
The idea of the student-senior partnership has caught on like wildfire. Today, 96 U of T med students volunteer with SSIPP. What’s more, there are seven SSIPP chapters across Canada, including at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and the University of Ottawa, explains Omar Gaballa (Class of 2T4), who is on U of T’s SSIPP executive committee.
Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, is SSIPP’s newest chapter. “They don’t have a medical faculty, so the nursing students are getting involved,” Gaballa explains. The student volunteers are typically paired with older adults whom their physician or health care coordinator has referred.
In March 2020, when COVID-19 restrictions began in Canada, Sem quickly realized the devastating impact the stay-at-home order could have on older adults. “We needed to do something,” says Sem.
SSIPP quickly replaced the in-person visits with phone calls. Again, there were myriad ways that the student volunteers could help. Over the phone, they helped explain the COVID rules and organized grocery deliveries. Sometimes, the students even ran groceries over themselves!
During the pandemic, Misha Dhuper (Class of 2T4) was paired with a woman in her 80s whom she regularly phones. “We can easily talk for one or two hours,” says Dhuper, one of the national SSIPP Co-Chief Operating Officers. “We talk about anything and everything. It would be really nice to meet her in person one day.”
For more information on SSIPP, visit www.ssipp.info.