Teen has been a companion to seniors during pandemic

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

When the global pandemic locked down an entire generation, Peachtree Corners teenager Jean Yu found a way to break through the isolation of seniors and ease their anxiety.

The 17-year-old used her digital savviness and well-honed skills in playing the violin, practicing mindfulness and photographing nature to make a difference in their lives.

Jean provided a series of Zoom concerts and weekly mindfulness lessons for residents in numerous nursing homes and assisted living communities. She taught them how to practice meditation to relax the mind and body and help reduce stress.

Jean took their online requests and learned new songs on her violin, such as “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” performed holiday-themed concerts, and hosted sessions with her music and nature photos for her “Mindful Companions” Girl Scout Gold Award project.

“She was a constant, compassionate virtual visitor in their lives when they most needed it,” said Leslie Gilliam, communications advisor for Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta.

Her project drew the attention of the Cambridge Health Alliance Center for Mindfulness & Compassion at the Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital, which awarded her a scholarship to continue her work.

“I wanted to have these types of inter-generational conversations and be able to talk to these seniors, not only about mindfulness practices but also about how their day went,” said the teenager. “It was about creating a welcoming environment, especially during this time when they had no choice but to stay isolated.”

For the past two years, Jean has hosted her holiday concerts and a weekly Mindful Moments Zoom sessions. She also uploads her lessons on YouTube. This holiday season will be the first time she will have live concerts at senior communities, with performances by her school’s honor band. Jean is a senior at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology.

Mindful Companions evolved from a Girl Scout project to make greeting cards for a nursing home during the COVID-19 lockdown. A director at A.G. Rhodes loved them so much she called Jean and asked permission to photocopy them for all residents.

Jean said she was surprise that a gesture as small as making handmade cards would be so important for the elderly, especially during the pandemic and isolation.

Credit: spe

Credit: spe

At the same time, a school research assignment about the pandemic’s effect on older people showed Jean more of the difficulties they faced.

She also noticed how the isolation affected her grandmother living in China. An OB-GYN in her 80s, Xiue Lin of Fujian, China, still enjoyed going to the hospital and working part-time. That wasn’t possible during the pandemic, and Jean could see its impact during their virtual visits.

Credit: spe

Credit: spe

Jean’s mother, Amy Yu, said her daughter’s project is about respecting elders, a fundamental duty in the Chinese culture.

“We always respect elders because they have worked hard their whole lives and give a big contribution to society,” she said. “It’s very important to learn to appreciate the seniors who worked so hard.”

As the pandemic continued, Jean dug in, offering more holiday concerts and mindfulness lessons and expanding her outreach around the state and country. As a result, she discovered more seniors interested in mindfulness as part of a greater focus on wellness and was glad to be a free resource for them.

Jean improved her Mindful Moments sessions, making them more effective for an older audience through the help of Laura Baber, community outreach and program coordinator for Hebrew Senior Life in Massachusetts.

At A.G Rhodes, activity directors distributed Jean’s cards and letters and set up videos to play in residents’ rooms and on TVs in the common areas, said Kim Beasley, director of communications and outreach for the nursing home and rehab center.

Beasley said she was impressed by Jean’s “consideration of what our residents wanted to receive in her messages, her beautiful cards, and her asking about song choices so she could record music they would like and be familiar with.”

Jean wanted to hear how their day went, to sing “Happy Birthday” to those celebrating another year’s passage, and to take requests for the violin. She’s learned to play a lot of hits from yesteryear, like “You Are My Sunshine,” and top request “Amazing Grace.”

“It was really meaningful to me just to see how comfortable it was talking with the elderly, and they would share a lot about themselves and their experiences,” she said.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Jean will finish up her senior year in May, and then she’s off to college. She wants a career in research and is interested in molecular and biomedical sciences. But she’s not giving up Mindful Companions.

“I want to keep doing it for the rest of my life, if possible,” she said.

She wants to expand the program by involving high school and college students to have more in-person concerts and face-to-face interaction with older people.

Jean, who just wanted to help seniors stay calm and find inner strength during the pandemic, developed those qualities for herself, said her mom Amy.

“When she faces an issue, she’s more able to keep calm and find a solution. After two years, it’s made a difference,” Amy said. “When she helped seniors, she helped herself, too.”


Jean Yu posts holiday-themed concerts and Mindful Moments sessions as a free resource on her YouTube channel: youtube.com/channel/UCUIhzP-fMPOrMVs5vFM9R2A