As the spread of the coronavirus continues to fluctuate across the globe, the pandemic’s impacts shape the lives of people from all walks of life. From young kindergartners to retired veterans, every person faces challenges that alter their way of life. However, elderly people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, which intensifies its physical, emotional, and psychological challenges. The isolating nature of the response to the coronavirus impedes their ability to maintain their financial stability, health, and wellness.
Recognizing the effects of isolation on both their nation’s elderly and on refugees sheltering in the Netherlands, United Way the Netherlands (UW-NL) conceived and implemented an innovative and intersectional approach to connecting people via technology. The Joining Forces Initiative, designed to meet the needs of two distinctly different groups, is an example of recognizing how finding a common thread amongst people can bring individuals of different identities and backgrounds together to support one another. By using video call technology to connect a refugee with a senior citizen, United Way fosters a sense of belonging and skill building for refugees and a connection to the world for the elderly.
Since its founding, United Way the Netherlands has recognized the importance of supporting senior citizens and refugees as part of its mission. This work has taken on greater visibility in recent years when the Netherlands and other countries in the European Union (EU) saw climbing numbers of refugees. These asylum seekers have increasingly turned to the EU for assistance as they are forced out of their homelands of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, etc., due to internal conflicts, economic and political factors. To add on to existing challenges that refugees must face in a foreign country, new refugees are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19: Without a social safety net and proper connections in place, asylees are on their own as they navigate a new environment.
On the other hand, the coronavirus poses a severe health risk to this growing elderly population, who are more vulnerable to the virus’ effects. The virus-related restrictions put into place contribute to the acute isolation and loneliness that the elderly experience. Restrictions on visitations in long-term care facilities are particularly detrimental to the elderly’s mental health, further escalating the impacts of isolation. Older adults also face challenges in navigating the faceless world of virtual services, a big step away from in-person interactions of the past.
To counteract the challenge of isolation and building on work they were already doing with the elderly and refugees, United Way the Netherlands began the development and implementation of the project in early 2020, with the support of 3M Company and three different Dutch foundations. In Joining Forces, refugee volunteers are matched with an elderly Dutch person. The volunteers regularly connect with their elderly partner via video chat, which introduces the refugee to Dutch culture and helps them practice the language, while creating a bond and opportunity for conversation with their elderly partner. The three critical components for successfully executing the Joining Forces initiative were: recruit participants, develop resources for participants, and invest in tablet technology.
Recruiting and equipping Participants
To recruit refugees, United Way partnered up with organizations that provided refugee services, including helping refugees find career networks and attain the academic proficiency necessary for higher education. Community partners are a key pillar in Joining Forces, as they have an extensive history of empowering and uplifting refugees and the elderly, and therefore are best equipped to identify those who can best benefit from the program.
Ensuring that volunteers are adequately prepared is crucial for both refugees and the elderly to reap the full benefits of Joining Forces. Because the structure and framework of Joining Forces are new to both groups, refugee volunteers and the Dutch elderly are trained on how the program works, ways to cultivate healthy, compassionate friendships, and how to troubleshoot any problems.
Restoring engagement and empowerment
In the Netherlands 85 elderly have been matched with 85 refugees, and a further 60 elderly have been matched with volunteers from all walks of life. In 2021, the project crossed regions and was also implemented in Spain: thanks to the support from the Internet Society Foundation, Fundación United Way España has aided another 75 elderly and 75 refugees have been matched.