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Nikki Shults: Executive Director at Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly

Little Brothers - Friends of the Elderly brings together student volunteers and older adults living in public housing in Boston. LBFE is a community-based program that fosters intergenerational friendships to combat loneliness and social isolation. In building social connections, mental and physical health benefits emerge for both the youth and older adults. LBFE’s unique model is centered on celebrating life no matter how old you are.

What do your programs entail?

CitySites brings students into public senior housing buildings for low income older adults. There’s arts and crafts, gardening, language exchanges, an ESL class, a competitive chess club— it’s social activities to create a platform for friendships to build. Digital Dividends launched in response to the digital divide that we noticed during the pandemic. Older adults didn’t know how to order groceries online or do Zoom calls with their families. We do weekly classes where students teach 10-15 adults about using technology. They each get to keep the laptops they use for class and we help them find low-cost internet services when they graduate. Creative Connections is our arts program. We bring in instructors to teach programs like dance, poetry, painting, drum circles. It provides social, educational, and creative opportunities for people living in public and affordable housing.

What are the health benefits of your programs for both students and older adults?

We look at our programs through a lens of equity. There are younger and older participants, one age is not serving another age. They are there in fellowship and community. Even prior to the pandemic, there was a report on loneliness that found Gen Z is the loneliest generation. By bringing together older adults and Gen Z, we are targeting both ends of the spectrum. There is a lot of research on the health detriments of loneliness. It can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or chronic obesity. Our programs foster intergenerational friendships, peer groups, and social networks that combat isolation and loneliness. Loneliness is a silent killer. If you’re a lonely person, you have a higher chance of early death and developing mental difficiences.

How did the pandemic affect LBFE?

In the beginning, we reached out to all our participants to see what they needed. In Boston, we luckily had a united response to get everyone access to the resources that they needed, whether it was food, housing, or health care. At one point, we received a donation of tablets with prepaid data plans. Each tablet had instructions on how to use it and how to use Zoom, so we handed those out to our participants so we could connect virtually. We became really focused on tackling loneliness, because it became clear that was going to be a huge problem during the pandemic. This is when we developed the Digital Dividends program because we realized a lot of participants didn’t know how to use technology during this time.

What is the best part of your job?

I get to work with people who are making the world better. No matter how depressing the news is, I know we are helping to make people happier which is really great. In my role, I mobilize our community and resources to allow our team to run these robust programs to end isolation and loneliness. Even as a kid, I always loved being around the elderly. I spent so much time with my grandparents and the adults in my life. In this job, I’m living my dream of spending time with older people and making friends.


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