Walking Down Memory Lane to Battle COVID Isolation

An unexpected result of a project designed to combat pandemic isolation changed the lives of a student and her 93-year-old project partner.

Jim and Nancy Olsen with friends on their first date in the 1940s. (Courtesy of Nancy Olsen)

When 93-year-old Nancy Olsen found a map of her hometown of Great Neck, New York, on Long Island, in an old desk once owned by her mother, she began reminiscing about her life.

“It had everyone’s name on it who owned property or a business, and I started saying, ‘I remember that,’” Olsen says. She began to write down memories of her life, but with age-related tremors, her penmanship was no longer legible, even to herself, she says.

Then Olsen was paired with a UConn School of Social Work student through a research project launched in 2020 known as SLIP: the Social isolation/Loneliness Intergenerational Project. She mentioned her attempt to record her memories, and the student, Lisa Paolini ‘21 MSW, offered to type up her stories during their weekly phone calls. Now, Olsen’s memories are bound in a book titled “Dancing in the Dark: Memoir of Nancy Louise Gillis Olsen” that she has shared with her sons and grandchildren.

The new family heirloom is an unexpected outcome of SLIP, which aims to show the power of connection, and the therapeutic techniques used, to combat the effects of isolation.

Mutual Aid

At first, Lisa Paolini was nervous to try to make a connection with a woman isolated in a long-term care facility over the phone.

"We all knew what was happening in these facilities from the news; I knew we’d be talking on the phone. How am I going to develop a meaningful connection with this person?” Paolini says. “By the end, she’s someone that I’m never going to forget. I definitely was not expecting that going in.”

Paolini had participated in the SLIP program pilot in the summer of 2020, where student volunteers connected with older adults who were isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students worked with project co-leads Rupal Parekh, assistant professor; Brenda Kurz, associate professor and Master of Social Work (MSW) program director; and Breana Bietsch, Ph.D. student; to develop conversation starters and reminiscence questions for the program. In August, Paolini was assigned to the official SLIP project for her field education placement.

In total, the project involved four MSW and five BSW students and 43 older adults across the continuum of care at five sites, including senior centers and skilled nursing facilities. Some were isolated at home, while others were in facilities with restricted visitation. "This year was a particularly difficult time for both young adults and older adults as both groups report being the loneliest age groups, but the SLIP program provided a real opportunity to make real connections and develop meaningful relationships," says Parekh.

This fall, the School of Social Work will work with the UConn Center on Aging to further develop aging-related field placements for students. Field education is an integral part of the School of Social Work’s bachelor’s and master’s programs, giving students hands-on experience in a wide range of settings where they may one day be employed.

Talking to Paolini while she was isolated due to the pandemic was “wonderful,” says Olsen, who herself survived a bout with COVID-19 in April 2020 and a year later was able to see her sons and grandchildren again but still hadn’t been able to start eating or playing cards with other residents of the McLean Retirement Community in Simsbury, Connecticut.

The experience was beneficial for both. “She often told me, ‘I could never do this without you. You’re doing so much for me, and I’m not doing anything for you,’ and my jaw hit the floor because I felt like she was doing so much for me,” Paolini says. “Being trusted with her life story was all just humbling and very rewarding.”

Although the two were supposed to be partnered for just eight weeks for the project, they spoke weekly for about five months.

“I think, too, it helped her — I hope — during this time,” she says. “When we first started working together and she shared what her experience had been like in the facility [during the pandemic], having a job to do to keep focused on and remembering things she hadn’t thought about in a while helped her in that regard.”

‘That was a high point in my life’

"There were times I was feeling overwhelmed in the pandemic. I’d get on the phone with her and she’d say, ‘We have to keep looking forward; we’re going to get onto something else.’ When you hear that from someone who has been through as much as she has, you listen.”

Reminiscence therapy is a treatment used with older adults, especially those with dementia, to help them find meaning in their memories. Studies have shown it can improve their sense of self-worth and fulfillment. When you have stories like Olsen’s, it’s easy to see how that could be. One excerpt from her book reads:

"I was in high school during the war years, from 1940 to 1945. I wasn’t a wild kid; I think I was something of a goody-goody. But every once in a while, I did what the other kids did. In my senior year of high school, I became famous for this naughty episode: I was walking home with my best friend, Gloria. We both loved Frank Sinatra, and he was coming to New York City to do a show at the Paramount Theatre. So, we’re walking along and she said, ‘Why don’t we go see Frankie tomorrow?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I have a couple of dollars.’ So, the next morning, we took our school lunches and met at the bus stop, took the bus to the train, and the train to New York City.

“We lined up outside the theatre with hundreds, maybe thousands, of teenagers. We were carrying our school books; we were all truants, which was against the law, but the police weren’t doing anything. We were one of the last ones to get into the theatre, and we had to sit in the third balcony, way up on top ... For the third show, we got to sit down in the orchestra right near the stage, and we yelled, ‘Oh, Frankie!’ We screamed and yelled with the best of them. It was wonderful; he was very young at the time. When we got home, my mother was a basket case. She was home from work, and she was crying; she thought I had been abducted. She kept saying, ‘She would never do this!’ The school knew that I was truant. I had to stay after school for weeks. I got a nasty lecture from the principal. I got taken out of the school play, and everybody knew that I had skipped school to go see Frank Sinatra. I was famous; it was worth it!"

Olsen recalls that day as "a high point in my life. That's where I turned from being a nerd in school to being cool."

Though not all Olsen’s stories involve a celebrity, the combination of the era during which she came of age and the sheen of nostalgia make them all seem glamorous. Paolini’s favorites include Olsen meeting her husband, Jim, while listening to jazz records at a local record store and then going on their first date (a double) in New York City (it cost 17 cents to get there by train), where they caught a movie, played pinball on broadway, visited a jazz bar in Greenwich Village, and missed the last train home; their decision to get married over a memorable bottle of wine after Jim received a draft notice for the Korean War; and an imagined evening her mother and father would have spent dancing at a speakeasy in the 20s sparked by recently finding her mother’s 1920s beaded purse in a storage locker.

The experience opened Paolini’s eyes to working with older adults and gave her a sense of “vicarious resilience,” she says.

“It really challenged me to confront some of the biases I didn’t know I had when it came to older adults. Her resilience was incredible. There were times I was feeling overwhelmed in the pandemic,” Paolini says. “I’d get on the phone with her and she’d say, ‘We have to keep looking forward; we’re going to get onto something else.’ When you hear that from someone who has been through as much as she has, you listen.”

Paolini says her time with Olsen transformed her career goals and she is now looking to work with older adults, either in an advocacy or direct service role.

“I think a lot of times older adults are left out of the discourse around social justice, which is really unfortunate. Even in my own education, working with older adults isn’t something we focused on, which I didn’t really realize until we had this placement,” she says. “I feel passionate about that now; I think maybe that needs to change a little bit.”