A little less isolation, a little more conversation

Georgia Ngo is spending a chunk of her lockdown talking to strangers. This is not an easy thing to do when everyone is staying at home, but the medical student is part of a volunteer network providing those doing it tough with someone to talk to on the other end of a phone.

As part of the Conversation in Isolation program, Miss Ngo talks to a diverse range of people including aged care home residents, international students struggling to make friends in a city bound by curfews and lockdowns, and people in their 20s and 30s.

Medical student Georgia Ngo is providing support for people experiencing loneliness over the coronavirus lockdown with a program called Conversation in IsolationCredit:Joe Armao

Check-in calls will range from discussing the coronavirus to venting about one’s day, and Netflix recommendations.

"We don’t often get to stop just to hear about someone’s day," she said. "It’s been very nice to learn how to have those conversations."

Miss Ngo, who also manages the pairing of volunteers with people to talk to, said the biggest number of sign-ups had been with elderly residents in aged care homes.

"I think an important caveat to how we've done it is that it can be for anyone you know. If anyone wants a call, irrespective of age, irrespective of why, we're happy to try," she said.



"I think so much of this time has been about community. I think that's really what's gotten a lot of people through."

The Conversation in Isolation program was final year medical student Steph McKelvie's idea as she grappled with cancelled industry placements and sudden free time.

Itching to help, she posted in an online forum for Monash University students looking to lend assistance in some other way if they could not care for sick patients.

That has grown into a team of more than 150 student volunteers. Each volunteer is matched with vulnerable Australians who have signalled an interest through online registration.

The volunteers act as ongoing telephone supporters, who call every week to check in, have a chat and lend an ear.

Miss McKelvie said the program gave the student volunteers a "sense of purpose" and had helped at-risk Victorians, such as aged care residents, migrants and people self-isolating.

"A lot of community members have said that they're really grateful just to have someone to talk to … to know that there were people out there who cared about them and their wellbeing during this time," Miss McKelvie said.

The coronavirus lockdown has taken a huge strain on people’s mental health — including among those who haven’t previously needed psychological support. Calls to Beyond Blue were up 47 per cent in June this year compared to 2019. Health experts and advocates have warned the strain may be even greater for those in aged care.

Miss McKelvie has decided to continue the program beyond lockdown restrictions and may expand it beyond Victoria.

"Loneliness and isolation certainly didn't start with COVID, it just became more exacerbated for a lot of people," she said.

"There’s always people who are going to be isolated and there are always people who want to help."

Napier Street Aged Care communication officer Khalid Lamlih has connected eight elderly residents at his facility with the program.

"The outcome of it has been really good, especially for visitors who don’t have family members or people to talk to," Mr Lamlih said.

Volunteers call the residents once or twice a week, with some conversations lasting over an hour, he said.

Volunteer Sathya Phavendran has phoned the same person once a week and that routine has blossomed into a positive ritual.

"It’s been beneficial for both of us because I’m able to learn about a person with a completely different background to myself," she said.

"It’s made me broaden my world view a bit more, and it’s really nice establishing this ongoing weekly relationship as well – like making a friend over the phone."

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The community member she is paired with lives alone, and has been struggling with the financial impacts of the coronavirus as a temporary resident. She’s found that simply being there to listen has been a huge benefit to them.

"As medical students, we’re so used to trying to fix the problem, but Conversation in Isolation has shown the importance of companionship," she said.

"Just being there for them, listening to them, not necessarily being able to provide help but just being able to be a shoulder to lean on."

If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue's coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1800 512 348.

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