12 December 2016
Social isolation is a silent killer in Australia and New Zealand, Student Volunteer Army founder Sam Johnson says.
Johnson’s latest venture WeVisit, a service that connects the elderly and student visitors, launched on December 10.
“Research has shown that loneliness can lead to rapid progression of Alzheimer’s disease, increased rates of clinical depression and anxiety, sleeplessness, and greater feelings of stress,” Johnson says.
“We are hoping to change that by helping those who can’t visit loved ones as much as they would like, to recruit some help – almost like a surrogate grandchild.”
Inspired by the successes of the Student Volunteer Army and WeVisit co-founder Dr Tyler Brummer’s personal experiences, the team has been developing and trialling the idea for six months.
“Being so far away from my Colorado-based family got me thinking about a way to help maintain connections between families that live at a distance,” Brummer says.
WeVisit is a companion service for the elderly that matches them with a trusted and trained young person, who visits each week, shares time, does odd jobs and keeps families in the loop.
“Essentially, we are recruiting a network of New Zealand’s most helpful grandchildren to support busy families, expats and those who live apart,” Johnson says.
The idea has been warmly received by social agency Age Concern, which encouraged Johnson and Brummer to develop the service.
“We didn’t want to be competing with Age Concern, so we asked for their feedback. They said to hurry up and make it happen as they have more demand than they can cope with,” Brummer says.
Research by scientists from the University of Michigan shows people aged 50 and over who are visited in their homes three times a week have only a 6.5 per cent chance of developing depression, but when their contact with family and friends is limited to once every few months, that risk is almost doubled.
“That’s a startling fact that needs to be dealt with now,” Brummer says.
WeVisit, which has opened bookings, will begin the service for Canterbury residents in February 2017, has 15 visitors ready, vetted and trained and more than 7 matches made already. The trial period has involved talking to and visiting 15 older people and relevant organisations, care providers and agencies, Johnson says.
“In the trials, our most popular requests have been to help people set up and use a computer, sort through boxes and check on loved ones after an earthquake. Our WeVisitors, as they are known, do all of that.”
Young visitors are fairly paid for their service, but get more out of it than pocket money. WeVisit intern and fourth-year Victoria University Student Tré Ratahi visited Greta Bielawski this week in Linwood and helped her move boxes around in the garage.
“It felt good to help Greta do a job she’d been meaning to get done for a while,” Ratahi says. “I moved boxes down from high shelves, while she told me about her Grandfather’s horse-drawn carts. Next week we’re going to be sorting through the old photos together.”
The WeVisit team meet next week with executives from the Canterbury District Health Board with the hope of exploring how to help families who aren’t in a position to pay for the service.
The company offers families the chance to sign their loved ones up, with most of the funds supporting the visitor – less the costs of vetting, matching, insurance and health and safety processes. WeVisit is offering Christmas vouchers as a way to introduce the concept to family members.
Pairing young people with old for company is a trend taking off overseas. In Humanitas, an aged-care home in Deventer, near Amsterdam, students live rent-free in return for spending 30 hours a month with the elderly residents.
“We are very interested in the reciprocal nature of this service,” Johnson says. “Young people are provided with employment and the opportunity to learn from the older members of our society, while the elderly get regular company and help, and their families have the comfort of knowing they are being visited regularly.
“While this is a commercial venture, it’s not a long way away from the original idea behind the Student Volunteer Army. Yes the SVA moved silt, but it was always about the people. WeVisit gives us a new way to connect with people and generations, thankfully without an earthquake.”
- Vouchers are $180 for a one-month trial starting in February 2017 in Canterbury, and launching in other parts of New Zealand mid next year. The voucher is an invitation for any elderly person to try the service, ensuring it’s their decision to receive a WeVisitor or not.
- Sam Johnson is known as the founder of the Student Volunteer Army and is an Adjunct Fellow at the University of Canterbury. WeVisit Co-founder Tyler Brummer has just finished his PHD in Ecology at Lincoln University.