New pairing program brings caring and comfort to isolated seniors

Posted on Friday, April 17, 2020

The hand of an elderly person on a cane.

“We’re learning how important it is to have a sense of community throughout your life, which is what we are hoping to create through the Student-Senior Isolation Prevention Partnership. Volunteers will ask their senior friend how they are doing during this pandemic, and enjoy a warm, friendly chat.”

- MD student Celina DeBiasio, co-founder, Ottawa chapter of the Student-Senior Isolation Prevention Partnership (SSIPP)

By Michelle Read

The new reality of COVID-19 has robbed seniors of opportunities to stay social and maintain their sense of community.

Retirement facilities are limiting visitors and activities. Traditional means of socializing, such as churches and community centres, have been forced to shut their doors. These days, vulnerable individuals are facing massive challenges in adapting to the demands of social distancing.

Sensing the harm the pandemic may cause to the mental and physical health of seniors, a group of MD students at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine decided to share warmth and good cheer with folks facing the long, lonely haul of waiting out the pandemic.

This week, the Ottawa chapter of the Student-Senior Isolation Prevention Partnership (SSIPP) began its mission of matching MD students with isolated seniors. “Many medical students are eager to help with COVID-19,” says co-founder Celina DeBiasio. She and colleagues Jennifer Rowe, Evelyne Guay and Chelsea Haliburton cofounded the initiative, soon recruiting Stephanie Chevrier to administer the French portion of the program and tailor it to the Ottawa community.

The geriatric portion of medical training has given students an appreciation for the value of this initiative. They have specialized training in interacting with patients, some specifically with seniors. And they’ve seen studies, says DeBiasio, showing that creating opportunities for socialization benefits an individual’s mental health.

“We’re learning how important it is to have a sense of community throughout your life, which is what we are hoping to create through SSIPP,” she says.

The group sought the mentorship of Faculty of Medicine professors Dr. Elizabeth Muggah, Dr. Clare Liddy and Dr. Chandi Chandrasena, as well as Ontario Medical Association board director Dr. Lee Donohue, in reaching out to the city’s physicians. Together they spread the news of the initiative, inviting doctors to share the names of people who could benefit from the program.

“Physicians know their practice very well and can sense if a senior patient may face isolation,” says DeBiasio. “We’ve also been in contact with retirement homes who might be interested.”

During recruitment, student volunteers are asked about hobbies, interests, language skills and availability, helping ensure an optimal match. Volunteers will call or video-chat with their senior friend once a week for a 10- to 20-minute conversation.

“Volunteers will ask their senior friend how they are doing during this pandemic,” she says. “But they’ll also cover topics outside the pandemic, such as hobbies and interests—finding common ground and enjoying a warm, friendly chat.”

Third-year MD student Sara Trincao-Batra says she feels privileged to be part of the program. “Isolation during this time is a struggle for many people, especially older adults. I look forward to building relationships while reducing social isolation.”

In addition to serving up friendly conversation, students share updated Ottawa community resources as needed, “such as other sources of socialization, grocery assistance services and others,” says DeBiasio.

The program fills a unique need in Ottawa, she says.

“As far as we are aware, we are the only medical student-led initiative in Ottawa that combats senior isolation while still maintaining social/physical distancing,” she says. “We’re nurturing a unique relationship between community physician, medical student and senior.

“We’re hoping to help as many people as we can.”

If you are interested in the SSIPP program as a volunteer, physician or senior, please email For more information on the program, please visit the SSIPP website.

Celina DeBiasio sitting with her grandmother

The strong relationships the co-founders have with their grandparents are a big reason the SSIPP initiative is so important to them, says MD student Celina DeBiasio (here with her grandmother – or nonna, she says, in Italian). Photo credit: Celina DeBiasio

Jennifer Rowe posing with her nana and grandfather

MD student Jennifer Rowe poses with her nana and grandfather. Photo credit: Jennifer Rowe

Evelyne Guay posing with her grandmother

MD student Evelyne Guay and her ‘grandmaman.’ Photo credit: Evelyne Guay

Chelsea Haliburton and her grandparents

MD student Chelsea Haliburton and her grandparents. Photo credit: Chelsea Haliburton


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