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English Lessons, Yoga, and Medical Masks: How HSE Volunteers Are Helping Senior Citizens

English Lessons, Yoga, and Medical Masks: How HSE Volunteers Are Helping Senior Citizens

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The COVID-19 pandemic, which was announced in March, is not winding down anytime soon. The coronavirus is especially dangerous for senior citizens. Due to the threat of infection, older Muscovites are spending their days in self-isolation. But many HSE students are working to ensure Moscow’s elderly don’t get too lonely by communicating with them remotely.

As of April 1, 2020, the HSE Centre for Support for the Older Generation currently has 231 volunteers. This includes students, university staff, and faculty members. They help older colleagues, as well as veterans and participants of the Moscow Longevity project at HSE. In total, the volunteers are currently helping about 1,200 elderly Muscovites.

Skype Conversations in English

Anastasia Smirnova is a third-year student in the Faculty of Social Sciences. Many of her acquaintances have been volunteering for a long time, but she herself only occasionally participated in volunteer campaigns. Two weeks ago, Anastasia saw an announcement inviting volunteers to help elderly people who are in self-isolation, and she decided to try volunteering as an English tutor.

‘My students, who have by now practically become my friends, opted to discuss topics assigned in advance during each session, rather than do small talk. This way they can prepare for the lesson,’ says Anastasia. ‘I also give them homework—they themselves request it, and they are very conscientious about completing the assignments.’

Anastasia holds one-on-one lessons on Skype several times a week. Each lesson lasts 20-30 minutes, depending on how the conversation goes. For example, with her student Olga Nikolaevna, she discusses cinema. ‘We just discussed the film, Atonement, today and didn’t even notice that we spent an entire half hour talking about this superb film. It was both fun and useful.’

Anastasia Smirnova, third-year student, Faculty of Social Sciences

Anastasia admits that she likes online lessons. ‘It’s not at all difficult for me to spend half an hour a day on this. And, actually, my students are probably helping me more than I am them. It’s easier to get through any situation – including quarantine – when you can communicate with people. Someday this self-isolation will end, but my new friendships, knowledge, and experiences will endure for a long time.’

Yoga and Working with Technology

‘I basically want everyone to be happy. There are harmonious ways to feel positive energy. And in this situation, when we are sitting at home, physical and breathing exercises are necessary,’ says Maria Dzyubenko, the head of the student organization YogoVyshka.

Last fall, the third-year social sciences student began teaching yoga at the Cultural Centre on Pokrovka. The studio was popular with students, and when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, Maria completed some additional training to work as an online yoga instructor for the elderly. She now holds classes on Zoom.

‘I am a supporter of face-to-face communication and even more so of in-person yoga classes. I would like to not only see the participants on the screen, but also have the opportunity to adjust everyone,’ Maria says of the pitfalls of instructing online. ‘Moreover, in yoga for older people, you need more softness, consistency, and control, which is more difficult to provide with online classes.’

Maria Dzyubenko, third-year student, Faculty of Social Sciences

The instructor is not always satisfied with the online tools she has at her disposal. ‘I myself am a little worried about working with technology: Zoom can be frustrating. Some people in my class were able to connect easily the first time, and others needed assistance. And our classes don’t always go smoothly.’ At the same time, Maria is sure that this experience with online instruction is interesting and useful, because ‘we live in the 21st century and we need to learn new formats.’ She notes, however, that she enjoys the positive attitude of her students. ‘I am extremely pleased with my students’ enthusiasm. During our first meeting, I had just planned for us to do a test run of Zoom and make sure everyone could connect OK, but, as it turned out, everyone was ready for a real lesson. So we did a real yoga lesson right from the beginning!’

As long as you have a desire, having a fraught relationship with technology will not hinder you

One of Maria’s students, Alexei Boroshnev, reports that he enjoyed the first yoga class. ‘Maria is a wonderful teacher. She is a very sensitive, attentive and knowledgeable,’ he says.

The 67-year-old has been a friend of HSE for a long time: he visits the university for concerts and French lessons. When, due to the coronavirus outbreak, all activity on campus came to a halt, Mr. Boroshnev continued to learn the language on his own and started doing yoga online.

He is sure that in such a difficult time, volunteer assistance is important for all older people. ‘I am now at home, so I am physically inactive. And at my age, I need to be moving. Yoga helps with this.’

Medicine for a Teacher

Ekaterina Sarapulova conducts seminars on macroeconomics for first-year Political Science students.

‘My parents are already old, and I understand that not all older people are in the habit of using modern technology to learn about support measures from HSE, Moscow, or the government,’ Ekaterina says. ‘Many more elderly people live alone, and they have no one to help them at all.’

In addition, in the past, the HSE lecturer oversaw the organization of two federal projects aimed at expanding volunteerism in Russia, so she was interested to see how everything happens in practice.

Ekaterina Sarapulova, HSE Lecturer

The initial task of Ekaterina and other volunteers was to provide informational support. ‘We called HSE retirees. Most of them expressed gratitude, though felt a bit awkward. But at the same time, they were happy that the university remembered them.’

Among those whom Ekaterina called was her former teacher, Lyubov Tsoi. During the conversation, it turned out that she needed to buy medicine.

‘I brought Lyubov Nikolaevna everything that she needed. It became clear that many elderly Muscovites need not only information, but also real help,’ says Ekaterina.

Therefore, volunteers began to help not only by making phone calls. Ekaterina bought masks at the pharmacy and brought them to the Centre for Support of the Older Generation, and then other volunteers distributed the protective equipment to those who need it. At the same time, the HSE lecturer is sure that absolutely anyone can now help the older generation. ‘You need to self-isolate, be attentive to your health, not panic and not call doctors for the slightest reason—they are overloaded right now.’

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