When a service initiative strikes a deep personal chord, the impact can be unexpected, even profound.
Such has been the case for Jonathan.
"I have thought about social isolation during quarantine because I was experiencing it," says the Grade 10 student at St. Michael's College School (SMCS).
Little did Jonathan know that a brand-new volunteer opportunity at SMCS introduced this year, would further expand his understanding of what can happen when human contact is limited or non-existent.
"I think that it is horrifying that some seniors are going through that every day for years," he says.
Jonathan is among several students bridging multiple divides --- age, technology, musical tastes, and language --- while directly addressing what is described as a societal "epidemic".
"COVID [has been] just brutal on long-term care communities --- there's no nice way to put it," says Julian Powell, a social entrepreneur. "Residents had to spend really prolonged periods of time alone because of infection control measures right down to having to eat meals in their rooms, and not even getting to interact with other residents in their community. And these sorts of things can be really detrimental, especially for seniors living with some form of dementia, because they're already just sort of holding on. And the minute these programmes or these activities are taken away from them, you see people start to decline really quickly. And there are really serious moral implications there."
Since 2017, Powell and his team, along with a network of youth volunteers, have been working to address loneliness among seniors in long-term care facilities through Music Share, a not-for-profit organization he founded.
According to its website, Music Share is "dedicated to reducing senior social isolation through a variety of individualized music-based programming."
"St. Mike's was the very first school that we worked with," says Powell. Since the fall, the programme has added more schools to its volunteer network.
"I immediately jumped on the opportunity to support seniors as they were especially vulnerable at the onset of COVID," recalls Dr. Robert Fantilli ’94, math teacher at SMCS, who was introduced to Music Share by a SMCS parent in March 2021. "This avenue allowed our students to bring the joy of music to residents in our community and abroad."
Fantilli also oversees Christian service initiatives at SMCS.
"Students were presented the Music Share opportunity via our Edsby Community Service portal and signed up on a first come first served basis," says Fantilli. "Within the first 24 hours, we had more volunteers than the opportunity required, and [it] has been well supported and continues to be to this day."
There are two main ways volunteers can be involved with Music Share, across four program types. With pandemic restrictions, SMCS students participate virtually as 'remote playlisters'.
"My role was to make a music playlist around 45 minutes long based on the senior’s request," says Jonathan, who has made 20 separate, customized playlists for 20 individuals since he began volunteering in September.
Volunteers are provided with a list of songs that are chosen by the senior themselves. Each song is then uploaded to individual playlists on Spotify. The playlists are then shared with each senior by staff in their residence.
"When making these music playlists, I would often think about how different it would be if there was no social isolation," says Jack Major, a Grade 10 student volunteer, whose mother introduced the service opportunity to the school.
"My view on social isolation was greatly impacted after realizing that I wouldn’t be able to show the residents their music in-person," he says, adding, "I think [it] is a great and fun way to connect and help others."
In non-COVID times, volunteers can opt to share the playlist directly with the senior, in person.
"During the most severe parts of the pandemic, we weren't even allowed to go into long-term care homes to deliver our programme," says Powell. "We were really doing what we could in the meantime, creating some distance programming. We had iPad drop-off programmes, where we would fill three iPads with all of the music necessary for the residents in the home, and then actually deliver those iPads to a long-term care community once a week, so that the staff could bring music around to their residents. We also developed a one-to-one model over Zoom, where staff can bring an iPad and speaker directly to a residents' room, and then we have facilitators on the other end of that Zoom call, who control the music for this individual."
"We wanted to design a system whereby anyone could participate, and there would be something meaningful and personal in each interaction," adds Powell, who was driven to launch Music Share after his own previous volunteer experience.
"I was inspired by my time spent volunteering with Meals on Wheels," he recounts. "Through that service, I noticed that there were a number of individuals in our community, who, while their physical needs were being met, there were social and spiritual needs that were not being met. And that's because a lot of the people that use this service spend a lot of time in home or on their own. Through cursory research, you can determine pretty quickly that seniors living in long-term care are some of the most isolated people in our community. There are self-report measures that demonstrate a high number of seniors living in long-term care report feelings of isolation and loneliness, and this can lead to depression and other sorts of co-morbidities."
With the backing of the Social Venture Zone at his alma mater, Ryerson University, Powell pushed play on the idea --- which has only grown with the onset of COVID.
"The real impact of Music Share is the connections that are created," continues Powell. “We're not just about providing music, we're about providing social interaction and meaningful relationship-building. We're connecting residents back to their favorite music and songs that they might have not heard in a long time. A big component of our programme is providing music in languages other than English to individuals who didn't necessarily grow up in Canada. We're also connecting them back to cherished memories of places and people just by the nostalgia that is triggered every time they hear the music. On top of that, we're also connecting them to a brand new relationship, and someone outside of their daily routine, a friendly face that they get to build a friendship with over time."
Youth volunteers range in age from 13 to 18 years old.
"All the [SMCS] students who have taken part have done excellent work," adds Powell. "They've created the playlist exactly as we were hoping they would. There's even one student that I found out recently graduated, and has still been volunteering with us, even though he's already met all of his school requirements."
That student is Jack Jarrett '21.
"During this experience, I’ve gotten a better understanding of how much of an impact music therapy can have on individuals in the essence of how it affects the brain and triggers memories from people’s pasts," says Jarrett, who began volunteering with Music Share in April 2021, two months before graduating from SMCS.
"A popular favourite is Elvis who seems to be included in many of the playlists I make, as well as other honorable mentions, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Mohammed Rafi," he says.
Jarrett continues to receive monthly request lists from Music Share that he creates into playlists. He has also added other activities to his personal volunteer list. "I believe it’s important to help out and get involved no matter what stage you’re at in life."
As the requests keep streaming in for both Music Share and its volunteers, the impact of the programme keeps hitting plenty of high notes.
"Being able to get students involved and get them understanding the idea of social isolation, as youth, and especially getting them familiar with seniors and long-term care and how this system works, I think it really helps to create more compassionate and more fully-rounded youth," says Powell. "They can take these lessons with them as they age, so that we're creating a more conscientious society overall."
During the month of December, Music Share is accepting donations of new or used iPads to help fulfill and expand its service to seniors.