Meet Anika Kumar, a 17-year-old incoming college freshman who founded Forget Me Not, an intergenerational nonprofit organization that aims to reduce feelings of loneliness among older adults by partnering them with teens in a companionship phone call program. She thought up the idea for Forget Me Not after working with seniors through Episcopal Senior Communities, a nonprofit owner and operator of retirement communities. A recent graduate of Note Dame high school in San Jose, CA, Anika’s unique perspective on fighting loneliness among seniors as a member of Generation Z makes her a great addition to the SXSW panel. Read on to discover why...
Q: How did you first become aware that loneliness / social isolation is a problem that so many people struggle with?
A: Until I began working at an assisted living facility for older adults, the idea of social isolation was almost foreign to me. My life is filled with social interaction, (if not in person, then online), so the concept of not having enough human connection was sometimes hard to fathom. At the assisted living facility, I learned that many older adults, despite having a safe place to live and reliable basic necessities, often lacked human social connection. While some residents had visiting families and friends, others were not as fortunate. I recall one gentleman named Pete who was once a vibrant, outgoing, and adventurous individual, but now spends his days quietly in the corner of the activities room at the facility. During my volunteer shifts, I remember how Pete would light up whenever I or someone else approached him for a conversation. For someone without many visiting family members, these short and simple chats served almost as a “lifeline” for him, boosting his spirits and making him feel valued.
Q: How have you seen first hand how companionship and a human connection can not only alleviate feelings of loneliness, but also make people truly happy?
A: As I started to think about possible solutions to the issue of social isolation, I founded a nonprofit organization [Forget Me Not] that provides companionship phone calls from caring high school volunteers to lonely older adults. Through the mutually enriching conversations, many of the teen callers forge undeniable bonds with their older adult friends, and these relationships grow stronger with each call.
To the older adults, these calls are an additional opportunity to interact outside of their immediate world. Conversation with teenagers provides them a pulse of youth, and some say the calls make them feel alive and vibrant. The calls can also give the older adults a sense of purpose as they are able to share their experiences and wisdom with the youth. This sense of feeling valued can lead to a greater feeling of happiness. At the end of the day, these companionship phone calls become mutually enriching — a truly virtuous cycle!
Q: What would you say to motivate and encourage others to seek out ways to provide companionship to others? Is there a pay-off in it for them, too?
A: First of all, lay aside your technology! Believe me — I am a teenager, so I know how hard this can be in today’s world. Companionship is not just about sending a Facebook friend request or having hundreds of Twitter followers. Can we really have meaningful conversations over text? Can we really feel each other's emotional needs through an emoji? I would venture to guess not. What I have learned in the last couple of years is that there are truly interesting and generous people out there with whom we can connect on many levels. And if you disregard your biases, you will find rewarding relationships with the most unlikely of individuals. Friendships of these fashions can be extremely gratifying for all, and can serve to strengthen our community and society.
Q: How has your work fighting social isolation changed your overall outlook on life?
A: One thing I’ve learned is that one day, all of us may face challenges related to social isolation. As my work has shown, today’s isolated older adults were once the vibrant and valued members of society. We, the “younger generation” may be at the forefront of “connectedness” today, but at the rate that technology is advancing, we are all at risk of getting left behind as we age. And the reality is that nothing can replace genuine human interaction. Humans are innately social animals, and we need this interaction to feel a sense of belonging, purpose, value, and ultimately, bliss.