Christchurch Student Volunteer Army founder’s plan to combat elderly loneliness

Sam Johnson rallied his fellow students to clean up after the quake and his new company is just as helpful.

The image of a 21-year-old Sam Johnson and his friends shovelling liquefaction from stricken homes after Christchurch’s deadly earthquakes in September 2010 and February 2011 is one that’s burnt into the minds of most New Zealanders.

As founder of the Student Volunteer Army, Sam (now 28) mobilised his friends to help those in need, earning him the title of Young New Zealander of the Year in 2012, and endearing himself to an entire nation.

In terms of giving back to the community, you’d think that would be enough for the young entrepreneur, but now Sam has set his sights on helping another struggling sector of the population – the elderly.

Forgoing a planned deposit on a house and motivated by his own parents’ battles with cancer, Sam has started a business that he hopes will not only tackle rising social isolation among the elderly, but re-connect generations and result in a network of New Zealand’s “most helpful” grandchildren.

Sam became a household name after he founded the Student Volunteer Army in Christchurch.

WeVisit matches and connects older “home alone” Kiwis with young student visitors, to provide both with what could best be described as good, old-fashioned companionship.

Sam says it was inspired by the success of the SVA after the Christchurch earthquakes, and the experiences of himself and WeVisit’s co-founder Dr Tyler Brummer, originally from the United States.

“Both of my parents have experienced cancer,” explains Sam. “My mum Liz had breast cancer and my dad John has several forms. He’s only got a few months to live.

“Part of the venture’s development was based on my somewhat gruelling travel schedule and struggling to get as much time as I would like with family.

“Often I just wanted to have someone pop around to help Mum fix her TV or computer, which would then allow me to spend quality time or treat her, not just be emptying the rubbish,” he says, adding the money he put into the venture was supposed to go towards a deposit on a house.

Sam led Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, through her dance steps during a royal visit to Christchurch in 2012.

“Then when the loan rules changed, I realised I didn’t have enough, so I decided to start a social business instead,” he says.

For Tyler, the motivation came down to being half a world away from his grandparents in rural Kansas.

“Before I moved to New Zealand in 2013, I spent a few days teaching my grandma how to use email and Skype, and have written to her almost weekly since moving overseas. I have watched over time how things have become more difficult and they have become more isolated. My parents and I have had many conversations about what we could do to help or improve their quality of life.”

Along with social isolation – 44 per cent of older New Zealanders say they are lonely – youth under-employment and increasing age segregation were other factors behind the venture, Sam says.

The dream is to bring a sense of purpose to lonely, older Kiwis and, at the same time, introduce a new generation to the “soft skills” that have been lost over the past three or four decades – “polite chit-chat or how to shake someone’s hand and look them in the eye”, tells Sam.

Sam and Sally Jebson (84), one of WeVisit’s first customers.

“There’s a huge need for something like this. People are living longer, we have a massive ageing population and a whole lot of young people who don’t know how to talk to an older person. They have no idea – their grandparents either passed away or they didn’t grow up near them. This is about connecting them up.”

Unlike other cultures, where three or more generations living together is the norm, New Zealand families tend to live quite separate lives. They are also leading far busier lives.

“I think it’s symptomatic of the community structure changing,” says Sam.

“Because people move around so much, we don’t connect with our neighbours the way we used to. It’s not that the family doesn’t support the older person; it’s just that we used to have so much more of a social connection. And people are busy these days, so they are prioritising their immediate family more.”

The idea works along the lines of a sponsorship, where families pay for a young visitor to regularly call on an older person to provide companionship or a helping hand. They also give feedback, something other volunteer agencies don’t always offer.

Explains Sam, “There is an amazing number of families who will ring their mum every day, or she might see a GP once a month.

“She’ll dress up for the doctor or ‘dress up’ for the phone call and give the impression everything’s fine, when actually it might not be.

“We will provide constant updates to the family so, for instance, if they live in Singapore and mum’s in Timaru, they have first-hand knowledge of how things are. There’s no judgment. It’s just a simple sharing of how their relation is. Of course, if we do notice anything unusual, we’ll give them a call.”

Students, who receive $20 a visit, undergo an interview, basic training by a registered nurse or aged care worker, and police vetting before being matched with an older person whose personality and interests are similar.

The training process was developed in conjunction with Age Concern, and includes how to deal with physical issues associated with ageing and cognitive decline.

“We’re trying to make them understand what it’s like getting older,” Sam points out.

“A young person has no idea what arthritis feels like, so we tape their hands up and tell them to make a cup of tea. Putting some Vaseline on their glasses gives them a better understanding of failing eyesight, plus we go through training on problems like forgetfulness.”

Pairing young people with old for company is a trend that’s taking off overseas, and similar programmes show significant benefits for the recipient and the visitor.

Concludes Sam, “The student army was never really about shifting silt. It was about connecting people and helping people out.

“New Zealand has 400,000 students. If we connected up a force of them to visit older people, we’d have a pretty incredible country.”

WeVisit costs from $145 a month for a weekly visit. Personalised options are also available. Visit for more information.

Words: Julie Jacobsen

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