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Volunteer program aims to ease loneliness for seniors isolated by pandemic

Leah Mulrenan (right), volunteer services manager of Mystic Valley Elder Services, participates in a virtual meeting with Linda Cornell, the organization's social engagement program coordinator, to discuss the launch of the new Social Engagement Program.Andres Felipe Cuartas

While social distancing may be part of the new normal in the COVID-19 era, Mystic Valley Elder Services is implementing a Social Engagement Program to ensure it doesn’t cause undue isolation for local seniors.

According to the National Institute on Aging, research has linked loneliness to higher physical and mental health risks including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.

Linda Cornell says this concern has long been discussed at Mystic Valley Elder Services, where she coordinates the Social Engagement Program. Based in Malden, the nonprofit organization provides home- and community-based care and resources to older adults, adults living with disabilities, and caregivers in Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Melrose, North Reading, Reading, Revere, Stoneham, Wakefield, and Winthrop.

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“Loneliness is more prevalent than most people realize, because so often someone who feels lonely is embarrassed to say so,” Cornell said, noting that the Meals on Wheels delivery driver might be the only person some seniors see in a given day. “It feels like we’re addressing a big need in the elderly population. I’m very excited about the possibilities.”

While a launch date for the Social Engagement Program is to be determined this summer, senior participants are being selected through the nonprofit’s Home Care Program, which provides resources and support for maximum independence and well-being.

Volunteer Program Manager Leah Mulrenan is recruiting volunteers for the Social Engagement Program who are age 18 or older and able to dedicate an hour or so each week for at least one year.

The ideal volunteer is also friendly, compassionate, and committed to confidentiality, being a good communicator and active listener, and serving people in need. Bilingual volunteers are especially needed to help serve seniors of diverse backgrounds.

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Once a senior and volunteer are matched, the pair agrees on the method and frequency of their social connection, whether by telephone, e-mail, or home visits when in-person companionship becomes safe. Volunteer training is provided, as well as periodic surveys to ensure positive experiences for both parties.

“I hope people really enjoy this program and get a lot out of it – especially because I think volunteers will love it and need it just as much right now,” Mulrenan said.

“Everyone has something important to share, and it will be amazing to hear all the stories that might not be told, if not for this program,” she added. “Given the pandemic and all the other issues facing the country, listening to one another and connecting across generations has never been more important.”

For more information, contact Volunteer Program Manager Leah Mulrenan at Mystic Valley Elder Services at 781-388-2375 or lmulrenan@mves.org, or visit www.mves.org.

Cindy Cantrell may be reached at cindycantrell20@gmail.com.