Since 2021, the International Federation has a new partner, based in Greece: The Prolepsis Institute. Since 2019, the institute has been developing a project dedicated to isolated elderly people entitled Friendship at Any Age. Eleni Fagogeni, manager of the program, tells us about it…
Eleni, can you tell us what is Prolepsis Institute and what is the program Friendship at Any Age about?
Prolepsis Institute was established in 1990 in Athens, Greece. Its mission is to respond to major public health needs of Greece and Europe by conducting rigorous academic research and translating it into education, advocacy and humanitarian projects. This mission is rooted in the belief that health equality is a necessary prerequisite for broader social justice and social inclusion.
The Institute designs and implements initiatives, both at national and European level, aiming to:
- conduct research on important issues related to health and well-being, with an emphasis on epidemiology and preventive medicine,
- promote health education and health awareness,
- offer humanitarian support and services to vulnerable populations, and
- create networks for interdisciplinary and international cooperation on public health issues.
In 2019, the Prolepsis Institute created the Friendship at Any Age program, a comprehensive, volunteer-based initiative. It supports adults over the age of 65, and aims at fighting loneliness and social isolation through social contacts and friendships. In this way, it strengthens the social role and self-confidence of the elderly. At the same time, the objective of the program is to highlight the needs and challenges of older people and to raise awareness among the public, relevant organizations and the state.
Why did the Prolepsis Institute decide to tackle social isolation and loneliness of the older adults in Greece? Many people believe that such a problem doesn’t exist in Greece because of the importance of family bonds there…
Although in Greece family bonds are still strong, at the same time 22.3% of the population is over 65 years old. The population of our country is not only aging, but it is also getting isolated. It is estimated that 730.000 seniors live alone. The elderly experience loneliness and social isolation while at the same time their experience and capabilities are not deployed. Besides the degradation of the quality of life, social isolation and loneliness have adverse effects on one’s own physical and mental health. When the Prolepsis Institute became aware of the extent of this phenomenon in Greece, it became clear that it was necessary to raise awareness and to propose concrete solutions, hence the creation of our program.
What have you achieved so far with Friendship at Any Age program?
The program was launched in December 2019, in the Attica region, and since March 2021 the program has been expanded throughout Greece.
Today, the program includes two branches:
- Interconnection of seniors and volunteers. In particular, volunteers connect with seniors locally (where and when possible), aiming to develop bonds of friendship. Each volunteer communicates with the elderly beneficiaries by telephone on a weekly basis (and/or pays home visits, if it is possible, due to the pandemic). In this way, volunteers make the beneficiaries feel like members of a community that cares about them, while activating them intellectually and emotionally. At the same time, volunteers feel that they can be active citizens and contribute to society, while benefiting from the experiences of the elderly.
- An helpline to combat loneliness of elderly – 210-6101300. Within the framework of the Friendship at Any Age program, a helpline is available to older people who feel lonely, as well as to their caregivers, friends, and relatives. The helpline operates from Monday to Friday, 11am-8pm, providing communication in a safe environment with suitably trained volunteers. When needed, information is provided regarding relevant social services. A phone call to the 210-6101300 helpline is charged as a local call. Calls are not recorded, and Prolepsis Institute does not maintain or process personal data.
Till today, 195 elders have been connected with more than 200 volunteers and 2865 calls have been made to the helpline.
What was the impact of the covid pandemic on your program and on the older adults in Greece? Do you think it may help raise awareness of the issue of social isolation?
COVID-19 had an effect on older people’s daily routines, the care and support they received, their ability to stay socially connected and how they were perceived. Older people were being challenged by requirements to spend more time at home, lack of physical contact with other family members, friends and colleagues, and anxiety and fear of illness and death – their own and others (WHO, 2021). The pandemic has been both an obstacle and an opportunity for the implementation of the Friendship at any Age program. More people became aware of the issue of loneliness and social isolation and wanted to get involved in supporting senior citizens to feel part of the society again. Home visits were replaced by frequent telephone communication and in that framework more volunteers wanted to participate.
What are you most proud of?
We are mostly proud of our elders volunteers. The main idea was to make elders feel useful and active. This is why, from the start, we thought of elders as mentors and connected them with volunteers based on their mutual interests, such as work background. That was really successful but at the same time elders needed volunteers close to their age. Then the idea came along to connect elders with each other. In this way they gained more friends and became volunteers. Today each elder is connected with two volunteers and a third friend for whom they themselves volunteer. They feel that they give back to the community and they are really proud of the work they offer.
What are the main challenges for the future?
Our main challenge for the near future is to create autonomous local groups of volunteers and beneficiaries. At the moment, the program is being managed centrally by the staff and the creation of local groups will help us disseminate the program and connect more lonely elders to more volunteers.
You work in partnership with the French organization Petits Frères des Pauvres since the beginning, and since June 2021 you are also a partner of the International Federation. How important is it for you to work in liaison with other organizations internationally?
We are truly happy and proud for being a partner of the French organization and since one year of the International Federation. Since we are new in the field, working alongside with other organizations on an international level and exchanging good practices helps us grow, and gives us knowledge and the support we need in different levels.