New Yorkers Ben Goldstein and Robert Brajer used to hang out in-person regularly to nosh on lox and bagels and discuss everything from music to politics.
Though Goldstein, 30, and Brajer, 82, have a big age gap, they bonded after meeting over a year ago through the non-profit DOROT, which matches senior New Yorkers with younger volunteers.
“Immediately I was just very taken with him and just thought that he sounded great, such a funny and fun guy,” Goldstein told CNN, noting that he and Brajer made an effort to see each other every few weeks before the pandemic hit.
Because of Covid-19, however, their visits were put on pause: DOROT canceled all in-person visits. The organization instead asked its hundreds of volunteers and their matches – including Goldstein and Brajer – to shift to phone calls and video chats on Zoom.
Brajer said he misses the visits. But, like many, they are making virtual hangouts work. The two started with phone calls every few weeks, abiding by the stay-at-home order in place across the state. On June 4, they transitioned to a Zoom call.
“It’s good to see you,” Goldstein said during the call. “I haven’t seen you in a minute.”
“I miss you,” Brajer responded, his face beaming. “I’d like to hug you, and I’d like to give you some salad. You still look like you haven’t had enough sleep.”
“Still bags under my eyes?” replied his younger friend.
Bringing generations together
DOROT is a Hebrew word meaning generations, said Mark Meridy, the organization’s executive director.
“It’s our mission to bring generations together and to address the issue of social isolation,” Meridy said.
The program began in 1976 when a group of Columbia University graduate students saw a need to help older adults stay engaged and connected in the community. Since then, researchers have studied the health impacts of loneliness and determined that loneliness is its own epidemic.
“Loneliness is an important health priority,” Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, who served as the US Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017, previously said. “There’s growing evidence that we have a strong association between loneliness and concerning health outcomes.”
“Social isolation and loneliness can have devastating health care consequences on both older adults as well as individuals of all ages but it hits older adults particularly hard,” he said.
“What the research has shown is that when people are isolated or lonely, there are increased levels of depression, higher levels of blood pressure early onset of dementia and even premature death.”
Right now, the non-profit has more than 500 seniors matched with volunteers and advises other intergenerational programs across the country. Meridy said the relationship between seniors and young volunteers is reciprocal.
“Intergenerational programs have a significant impact in improving the quality of life of both individuals.”
In addition to matching volunteers with seniors for visits, DOROT delivers fresh meals and holds concerts and talks.
When coronavirus hit, all those programs went online, and DOROT set up tech support to introduce seniors to Zoom. Brajer was one of them, finding himself on a screen in a small square grid alongside more than a dozen other seniors.
The start of a new friendship
Brajer is a Holocaust survivor. He and his family were rounded up and forced to live in Budapest’s Jewish Ghetto, where 70,000 Jews faced mass starvation. Most of his family did not survive.
He escaped Communist Hungary when he was 18 and landed in New York City in 1956. Brajer lived with his partner of 55 years until his partner died of a stroke two and a half years ago.
“I’m lonely because he’s not here, I mean that was my whole life,” said Brajer. “Emotionally I was a wreck.”
Goldstein’s visits helped fill a void.
“Ben is a sweet kid,” Brajer said. “It was a very good thing emotionally not to be alone and talk about life. It was very enjoyable. We got to be friends.”
“It’s really, really cool to just be so welcomed into someone’s house like that. He’s a very gracious host,” said Goldstein, “It’s something I look forward to.”
It turned out they have a lot in common.
Bonding over a shared love of music
When Goldstein first visited Brajer’s apartment, he was awed by the hundreds of records his new friend shelved from floor to ceiling.
It turned out they both worked in the music industry. Brajer was a record salesman back in the 1960s and 70s at a department store on 5th Avenue. Goldstein owns a music management company that represents rock artists.
Before the pandemic, Brajer would sometimes put on a record and his young friend would ask him about it.
“I think that he enjoys me being able to tell him about the work I do in my music,” said Goldstein. “He kinda gets a kick out of me telling him stories from the road.”
Both relish live performances, which they’re missing right now.
“There is a generational gap. It really is not something that’s felt while we’re hanging out,” Goldstein said.
Brajer said he looks forward to the day he can see his friend in person again.
“It’s a good feeling,” Brajer said of his friendship with Goldstein. “You don’t feel alone.”
Until then, their friendship continues to thrive – online.
To find social engagement for seniors in your area during Covid-19, go to the National Resource Center for Engaging Older Adults Covid-19 resource guide or Generations United.