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Social Connection: Lessons From the Field

Sept. 24, 2020

“There is something special about hearing someone’s voice through a phone.”

I got my first phone when I was 11 years old. That was 13 years ago, when I was about to enter middle school. The gaudy, green flip phone had a limit of 500 text messages per month, and it was strictly for emergencies. My room at the time also had a landline phone in it. Mostly for show, it had a transparent casing that allowed me to see every colorful wire and mechanism within it. I think that was the only reason I kept it in my room — with my flip phone in hand, I certainly didn’t need it for its intended purpose.

As I grew older, technology and phones became more advanced and essential for our day-to-day lives. Suddenly, I was a high schooler that was dependent on social media, e-mails and unlimited games, apps and text messages. In college, I heard friends and peers complain about having to pick up the phone to schedule a doctor’s appointment or call back home. Now, after college, I keep up with my friends through a screen. Some of my best friends are those that I’ve had since high school; I text them often, but I cannot recall the last time I have heard their voices.

I’ve been reflecting on phones, technology and the power of human connection recently because I’m a research associate with Factor Health’s Sunshine Calls Social Connection program. In a few short weeks, this program has taught me the true value of a simple phone call. The goal of the program is to understand if semi-daily phone calls from volunteers help Meals on Wheels clients, who are typically older and must stay in their homes, feel less lonely.

When COVID-19 hit earlier this year, Meals on Wheels suspended its original food delivery model, where volunteers visit with clients for a few minutes a day when they deliver hot meals. With this loss of interaction, many Meals on Wheels clients felt a negative impact. The Social Connection program was designed to address feelings of loneliness in a way that keeps volunteers and clients safe.

As part of my role with Factor Health, I have enrolled 215 people into the Social Connection program. These are 215 people from all walks of life with different stories and vulnerabilities. Though they have never met or even seen me, many of them have openly shared things about their lives that aren’t detectable through a screen. In making these phone calls, I quickly learned that deep human connection happens beyond written words or screens, and this population understands that.

During the process of consenting, where I explain the Social Connection program to a potential participant, many individuals have expressed how wonderful it is to have someone who wants to talk to them and how helpful a program like this is in addressing loneliness. Our pool of participants is diverse: Some of them have no one to talk to, others have some family and still others have plenty of family but they only check in once in a while or through texts. One individual told me, “I hate texting. There is no true connection with texting, but there is something special about hearing someone’s voice through a phone and being able to chit chat with them naturally.”

Throughout this process, I have learned that no matter how advanced phones get, at a very basic level, they are still just devices — the real magic is that phones allow two people to connect in a special, meaningful way.