April 1, 2020

Coronavirus Intensifies the Need For Neighborhood Buddy Program

By Anne Levin

When Princeton’s Neighborhood Buddy Initiative was established two years ago, the idea was to pair residents with neighbors who might be vulnerable — specifically seniors — in the event of such calamities as “flooding, downed trees, sustained power outages, unrelenting heat waves, and, most recently, traffic-snarling snowstorms,” as the town’s website describes the program.

Potentially lethal viruses and global pandemics were not on the list. But with the coronavirus (COVID-19) expected to peak in coming weeks, the Neighborhood Buddy Initiative has stepped up efforts to look out for seniors and others who need assistance, and recruit more people to help. The original idea was to pair residents who live near each other, letting relationships evolve gradually during normal times. But these are not normal times.

Councilman David Cohen has been working on the program since being elected to the governing body in 2017. The initiative has been in a kind of holding pattern in recent months, as efforts to finalize the way it would be run were worked out.

About a month ago, Cohen got a call from George DiFerdinando, who chairs the town’s Board of Health.

“He said, ‘Gee, let’s start thinking about how the buddy initiative can help us respond to the COVID-19 epidemic,’” said Cohen. “We starting talking with Drew Dyson at Princeton Senior Resource Center about how we could help. The initial idea was that buddies would have actual contact with each other, but of course that has changed. And Drew was helpful in coming up with a set of actions that wouldn’t include contact.”

Volunteers in the program are being asked to help educate seniors about the virus. “A lot of the information about it is going out through email and the internet, and some folks are not up on the latest technology,” said Cohen. “Local neighborhoods that have the Nextdoor app, which connects neighbors with each other, were seeing a lot of requests by people who wanted to help. But there were none by people asking for help, because they weren’t on the app.”

The initiative is focusing on providing help with errands that don’t involve contact. Phone support is another component. ”They do regular check-ins, providing a bit of social interaction for people who are at risk of social isolation all the time, and especially now,” Cohen said.

Running a newspaper ad and distributing flyers in local neighborhoods has resulted in some responses — a few so far from those requesting support, and about 35 from those who want to volunteer.

“Right now, I’m pairing people,” said Cohen. “It’s a little tough because some people don’t want to ask for help. But as the numbers continue to grow and the situation becomes more dire, I’m thinking we will get more requests for help. And we are here to do that.”

The flyer identifies those who should be sheltering in place as older adults, people with lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, or are HIV positive, and pregnant women.

“If you have an elderly neighbor with whom you already have a relationship, even if they haven’t asked for help, we would encourage you to reach out with a friendly phone call suggesting your willingness to help out in any of those three ways (providing information about COVID-19, doing errands, or checking in with a buddy on a regular basis),” the flyer reads.

Volunteers can sign up through Bit.ly/Buddy-signup or by calling (609) 915-5944. For more information, email Cohen at dcohen@princetonnj.gov.