UCSD Studies Combatting Loneliness through Teen and Senior Connection

In May of this past year, third year UC San Diego medical student, Heidi Banh and Dr. Desiree Shapiro, a child & adolescent psychiatrist, recently collaborated to launch a mentorship program to connect seniors and teens together. This program was launched as part of a research study on how to counteract loneliness in the midst of the pandemic. 

The intergenerational study was initiated through an online program that brought together five seniors from two retirement communities and five San Diego area teenagers that were participating in a high school leadership program. In coordination with Shapiro and Banh, these 10 individuals met once a month on Zoom where each teen and senior were partnered for one-on-one interactions. Each senior and teen were paired based on similarities of characteristics.

The program’s group discussions include various themes such as gratitude, compassion, self-compassion, mindfulness, well-being, resilience, purpose, meaning, kindness, wisdom, and hope. One-on-one interaction sessions focused on building and deepening mentor-mentee relationships, the autonomous ability to create their own goals, and establishing a level of support from the program if needed. 

According to Shapiro, the basis of the program was to figure out how we can build connections and offer support to ensure positive youth development.

“Research has shown that many aging brains are skilled at problem solving and are also skilled in processing and regulating emotions,” Shapiro noted. “The benefits of both face-to-face and virtual intergenerational mentorship programs are vast, including promoting generativity and psychological wellbeing in older adults, reducing ageism and improving youth’s empathy and respect towards older adults, and promoting youth development.”

“In my clinical experience, it is powerful to see one be a champion for a youth. I run a summer program to encourage medical students to consider the field of child and adolescent psychiatry,” Shapiro continued. “Given Banh’s past experience with intergenerational volunteering, I suggested a virtual intergenerational mentoring program given the pandemic’s impact on mental health and the resulting loneliness.” 

According to Shapiro, loneliness has been a struggle across all generations even before COVID-19. Strict restrictions on social gatherings and quarantined social isolations have also exacerbated these issues.

This intergenerational study followed studies from Dr. Dilip Jeste, a senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine. Jeste  conducted research on identifying the characteristics of seniors feeling high levels of loneliness living in senior living and retirement homes. 

Jeste’s study found three main topics in the conclusion of his study. This was characterized by age-associated losses and limited social skills, the lack of meaning or purpose in life, and how wisdom and compassion can limit the factors leading to feelings of loneliness. 

In November 2020, Jeste led another study relating to loneliness that was conducted through an national online survey of 2,483 participants that were aged 20-69. The given study concluded that levels of loneliness were at its peak during an individual’s 20s and at its lowest when in their 60s.

Shapiro offered words of praise for her colleague for helping to bring the study together.

“Heidi Banh, the wonderful medical student who co-created the program with me, is outstanding and has so much passion in bringing youth and seniors together,”  Shapiro stated. “In her own life, she treasures time spent with her grandparents and other mentors. She embodies empathy and compassion.”

According to Shapiro, she said that she was hopeful about the results of the project.

“Our program is just ending so final data has not been analyzed, but the experience of the group sessions has been inspiring. The community of seniors and youth are amazing and the discussions have been rich with wisdom, insights, kindness, and laughter,” Shapiro stated. “Honestly, I see both populations giving and receiving- there is true meaning and purpose in this project.”

The process of analyzing the results further is ongoing. If you are interested in learning more in the program or if you are interested in participating, email Dr. Shapiro at [email protected].

Art created by Nicholas Regli for The UCSD Guardian