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UC San Diego program helps battle loneliness, connects seniors and teens

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Posted at 8:09 AM, Oct 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-19 11:09:03-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Heidi Banh, a third-year medical student at UC San Diego, knows first hand how vital connecting youth with older adults is.

"The inspiration came from growing up with my grandparents and parents in the same home and seeing the love and unity in the house," Banh said.

Her dream to bring those two generations together came to life during the pandemic when people of all ages were battling the same thing, loneliness.

"It was a perfect time to bring together those generations and have a common ground, and get a perspective of what it felt like from others," said Banh.

This past summer, Banh linked with Dr. Desiree Shapiro, a UC San Diego child and adolescent psychiatrist. Together, they created a virtual mentorship program connecting senior citizens and teens to help them feel less alone.

"Not only did we want to create this community-based program, but study its benefits on whether it could promote social connection, resilience, and mental well-being. That's where the research side of it came in," Banh added.

Seniors from two different retirement homes jumped at the opportunity, along with teens in a high school leadership program.

Each senior had a teen partner for one-on-one virtual meetings along with occasional group gatherings, all within six months. The groups had more in common than first thought.

"What we noticed is the two generations are very similar in so many ways. We see them as isolated in society in the real world, but when they're given opportunities to come together, there's so much empathy and love to be had and wisdom sharing on both sides," Banh recalled.

Dr. Shapiro added, "We've seen a beautiful community form in terms of acknowledging challenges of a pandemic but also linking it to positive psychological ways to live.

The program is a first of its kind, according to Banh and Shapiro. After they work out the kinks, the duo said they hope it can continue to be an option for more teens and seniors in the future.

"These conversations just move me as a person and future physician to see that we're all human and to remember that," said Banh.

Even without a program, Banh said finding a person to connect with isn't hard to find.

"Reach out to your grandparents, reach out to your elders and say hello because conversations could lead to a beautiful relationship," she said.

For a list of mental health resources near you, click here.