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Storytelling project forges connections with seniors

Researchers with McMaster’s Reading Lab are hoping a new community writing project that connects older adults with student volunteers will alleviate seniors’ isolation and loneliness arising from the COVID-19 pandemic — and provide valuable data about their experiences at the same time.

The Niagara Stories Project is a partnership between the Reading Lab, run by linguistics professor Victor Kuperman; the Seniors’ Computer Lab Project and Cyber-Seniors’ Connected Communities Niagara.

It asks seniors to contribute stories about their lives to an online platform, and then chat about them with student volunteers.

The goal? To help older adults feel less isolated, teach them new tech skills, and provide data for Reading Lab researchers to see how seniors’ feelings of loneliness change over time.

“Research by Dr. Kuperman and Dr. Aki-Juhani Kyröläinen has shown that loneliness can be revealed through someone’s writing by the emotionality of the words they use — using fewer positive words means the writer feels more lonely,” explains Nadia Lana, a PhD student in Kuperman’s lab.

“This is very helpful because you can’t always ask someone how lonely they feel — the feeling is stigmatized, so it can be hard for people to say they’re lonely.”

It’s easier, says Lana, to ask seniors to share stories, and then analyze their writing for clues about how lonely they may feel.

Older adults participating in the project write a weekly personal story about themselves, then chat about it with a student volunteer, many of whom are from McMaster’s Cognitive Science of Language program.

And while similar programs in other locations have indeed resulted in seniors feeling less isolated, the benefits extend to the student participants as well.

“I think it’s really important to build intergenerational relationships,” says Lucy Thomas, an undergraduate Cognitive Science of Language student.

“Older adults have such a wealth of knowledge and experience to share, and I treasure hearing their stories. It’s also great to reach out to older adults who may be feeling more disconnected than before because of the pandemic.”

Because the project is flexible, participants don’t have to contribute every week, and new writers can join at any time, Lana notes.

There may also be an opportunity to share the stories more widely, she says.

“The project is supposed to go until the end of December,” she says. “And, if participants are willing, we’re hoping to create something like a podcast, or a book, to get these stories out to a wider audience.”

To learn more about the program, email Nancy Siciliana, one of the project organizers; call 905-329-3124; or visit the Cyber Seniors website.

This story originally appeared in Brighter World. By Sara Laux, Faculty of Humanities

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