Loneliness is a problem that has only increased since the pandemic, causing a different crisis of its own. 

This academic year, public health students at UMass Amherst have once again partnered with Northampton Neighbors for a special storytelling project called “The Epidemic of Loneliness: On Connection, Belonging, and Public Health.”  

The course, which is led by Professor Gloria DiFulvio, connects students with elders in the community to participate in documented conversations that in turn lead to a strengthened bond in community engagement. Zydalis Bauer spoke with DiFulvio and others to learn more. 

Read the full transcription:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: Loneliness is a problem that has only increased since the pandemic, causing a different crisis of its own.

This academic year, Public health students at UMass Amherst have once again partnered with Northampton Neighbors for a special storytelling project entitled “The Epidemic of Loneliness: On Connection, Belonging, and Public Health.”

The course, which is led by Professor Gloria DiFulvio, connects students with elders in the community to participate in documented conversations that, in turn, lead to a strengthened bond and community engagement.

Gloria DiFulvio, UMass Amherst: The seed for this class began actually before the pandemic. Just about the time of the pandemic, I had read this book by Dr. Vivek Murthy, who is our current surgeon general. The book is called “Together: The Healing Power of Social Connection.”

And he was talking about how globally, we are in a — really loneliness pandemic where people are more disconnected for a variety of reasons, whether it’s, you know, disconnection because of refugee status, disconnection because of losing home, disconnection because of aging.

And in public health, a really central part of health is that social connection, that feeling of belonging, that sense that you — you matter in the world. And so, I felt like it was a very important class to add to our curriculum in public health. And as I thought about, you know, we can sit in a classroom and talk about these issues, but really the opportunity to connect and to–  to actualize that connection was key to feeling — like, I wanted that to be a central part of the class.

Zydalis Bauer: And so, Hellen and Jonathan, you both were part of this course.

Tell me, what interested you in taking part in this project?

Jonathan Daube, Northampton Neighbors: Well, I found that there was even more to it than Gloria mentioned. A lot of older people like myself may know their grandchildren, but they really don’t know other people of that — that age and vice versa.

And we were very frank with each other. We got to know each other through individual conversations and then we recorded interviews. And it’s amazing how easy it was. And even for us old folks who don’t know quite how to work, Zoom and all that kind of thing, it was the young people who — who fixed this up.

And I think Gloria’s idea would work with law students, it would work with all kinds of students, not just nursing students.

Hellen Muma, UMass Amherst Student: Yeah, and for me as well. Before I took this class, I was a bit hesitant about first, taking this course of being a part of this intergenerational project, because I couldn’t figure out how to these two connections or these two generations could come together and connect and find common ground. I never got the chance to know my own grandparents, so it was — I didn’t even have a glimpse of how that could work.

However, as I got through the project and learning and meeting my partner, I realized that we weren’t all so different. We connected on not only our individual experiences of loneliness and being part of this world, we also connected on things like, you know, gardening, for example, or music or travel.

It’s like I was talking to a friend and a friend that I’ve known for a long time, and I realized a lot about myself and my personal belonging on, you know, this big earth.

Zydalis Bauer: So, tell me a little bit about how the course works, because I know that there’s some academics that are tied to it, and then you bring in the storytelling aspect that connects the Northampton neighbors.

So, what does the process look like in the class?

Gloria DiFulvio: When we first meet, we do a lot of work in the classroom to get to know each other and to try to create a community where learning can happen safely and…and deeply and — and very different than it happens for — for most classrooms, where one person talks and then people ask questions, and we engage together.

And so, we then learn about a whole range of topics, right? We just finished this class, currently just finished talking about the refugee crisis in the — globally. And then we move on to other forms of disconnection for the first part of the class, then we move on to how do we do something about it? How can we move from an individual idea of what loneliness is to a community solution and thinking about social infrastructure and thinking about civic participation, thinking about stories and conversations and all as a way to — to create community and to work on that feeling of connection and belonging.

Zydalis Bauer: And Hellen and Jonathan, I know that there’s a partnership that happens between the students and the Northampton Neighbor members.

So, tell me about that partnership and what happens? How does the interview work? What’s the style like?

Jonathan Daube: Well, Gloria put us together and I’m amazed how quickly the friendship developed. I’ve become friends with both the students I worked with, and we’re still in in connection with each other. I’ll be interested in what the permanent influence will be of this class.

And I hope this class spreads, as I said, to law students. And I mean, it would fit for any kind of student, I think, not just nursing — nursing students.

Zydalis Bauer: No, I think you’re absolutely right, Jonathan, because this loneliness, it’s something that can affect all of us, regardless of what we’re studying, our backgrounds.

Jonathan Daube: Yeah.

Zydalis Bauer: And it’s — it’s a public health concern. And so, if we’re part of the public, it’s a concern for all of us. So, I think you make a really valid point that this is something that —

Jonathan Daube: And young people, young people can be just as lonely as older people.

Zydalis Bauer: Well, and speaking of that, I was actually reading a Harvard report that was saying that the two demographics that have been most affected by loneliness are young adults and the elderly community. And so, here you have these two generations coming together to kind of talk with each other.

So, tell me about some memorable moments and revelations that really stuck with you after doing the project and interviewing each other.

Jonathan Daube: Some conversations are just general conversations about life, but others can be very focused.

For instance, I had one student, member of a large family that she loves dearly. But she is the only person in the family who’s vaccinated and who believes in vaccination. Everybody else was hostile to it. And how that all worked out was — was fascinating to listen to. And she was quite willing to talk about it.

Hellen Muma: And for me, with my partner, we did talk a lot about, you know, the smaller things. But during that time, during the spring semester, we thought we had some situations going on with UMass Amherst and the Black community specifically, and so it was hard to verbalize that in a way.

But my partner really pulled it out of me to really talk about it in a comfortable way where I was like, I had to come back and realize that even though this is still happening and it’s sad and it’s horrible that I still belong here and that I can still find peace and belonging — it tears me up.

But I still find belonging here, even though…the rest of the world may not feel like — may not feel like I do belong.

Zydalis Bauer: What have you learned about yourself throughout this process?

Hellen Muma: That I’m worth listening to and that I have a story to tell. You know, sometimes it’s hard to reflect on your life and figure out how something so small in your life can become something so big or, you know, before I thought stories were about you had to have a wisdom or age to tell the story, but a good story can come from anything.

And I realize that even though, like I said before, there’s this big world and that there’s so much going on, that, you know, there’s still people who want to listen to you and people still care to learn about who you are and the stories that you have to tell and that you belong in some sort of space, whether that’s a small space or a community, or that you belong and that you’re connected to.

There’s so many people who want to be connected to you, and there’s people that care to be connected.

Zydalis Bauer: And lastly, we were talking about loneliness affecting us all.

And so, what message would you all want to share with others about connecting and having that sense of belonging with each other? What tips would you want to share with people?

Gloria DiFulvio: We live in a very hyper-individualistic society that tells us we have to do it alone, that these great individuals throughout history did it alone and really they didn’t do it alone.

We don’t — we can’t do it alone. We are a community. Community matters. We need to care about one another. And there are lots of ways to do that.

And getting involved in your community — community really matters. And, you know, we need to remember that we actually exist communally.