Students reach out to seniors to reduce social isolation

by Vicky Cerino, UNMC public relations | June 23, 2020

Image with caption: Estelle, a resident of the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, gets to know pen pal Sara German, a UNMC medical student, with FaceTime.

Estelle, a resident of the Rose Blumkin Jewish Home, gets to know pen pal Sara German, a UNMC medical student, with FaceTime.

June Arbogast recently retired and lives in downtown Omaha -- a world away from where she once worked as a volunteer in Sudan managing a village clinic and providing medical care in two refugee camps.

A pen pal program created by UNMC first-year medical students Emily Jezewski and Abigale Miller brought back these and other favorite parts of Arbogast's nursing career after she began exchanging letters with second-year medical student Erin Bertone.

Miller said 71 students from colleges across campus volunteered in the program as a way to reduce social isolation. In all, 178 older adults living in the Omaha area -- from different hospice centers, assisted living facilities and memory care units -- have received letters, phone calls and emails during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"My pen pal, Erin Bertone, shared her studies, her hopes for an Air Force residency and her love of travel," Arbogast said. "Erin asked me about my travels as well as my experiences. I was delighted to know that we had so much in common despite our age difference. She also asked me for pointers in stress reduction.

"Her interest in my past work and travel, as well as wanting tips on stress relief, made me feel valuable again. Erin is going to be a great doctor."

Jezewski said the idea started when she and Miller were talking about older adults and social isolation. "I thought about how it would be easy to write letters to older adults and how this would help alleviate some of that social isolation," Jezewski said.

"One goal was to educate students on the issues of social isolation and loneliness among the elderly," Miller said. "We thought writing letters would allow us to do this. Emily and I both have worked with the elderly population and studied gerontology during our time at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, making them close to our hearts and an easy choice for who to help."

The students were matched to older adults based on preference of communication (letter, emails or phone calls), and the students received an email with instructions and educational resources.

Connections in the community were made with the help of Elizabeth Harlow, M.D., and Jane Potter, M.D., of the UNMC Division of Geriatrics, Gerontology and Palliative Medicine. In addition, Julie Masters, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Nebraska at Omaha's gerontology department, shared connections to community programs to find interested older adults.


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Tacy Slater
July 13, 2020 at 2:20 PM

What a thoughtful and considerate initiative. I can imagine this being an incredible experience for all involved.

Helen Miller
June 24, 2020 at 10:58 AM

Congratulations Abbie Miller, great article for a great future doctor! Love you Gr & Gr Miller.

Karina Bishop
June 23, 2020 at 12:05 PM

Fantastic initiative that reaps benefits to all! Congratulations!!

Marlene Novotny
June 23, 2020 at 9:27 AM

What a wonderful idea! Great job!

Donny Suh
June 23, 2020 at 9:02 AM

Very proud of our students at UNMC. Great learning opportunity!