Skip to Content

How AI is helping Baby Boomers find kids who need a mentor

They’re among a growing number of mentors across the United States matched with mentees by Eldera, an online platform that uses an AI algorithm to pair adults who are at least 60 with young people ages 5-18 for regular video chats.
Photo illustration CNN / Getty Images / Adobe Stock
They’re among a growing number of mentors across the United States matched with mentees by Eldera, an online platform that uses an AI algorithm to pair adults who are at least 60 with young people ages 5-18 for regular video chats.

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN

(CNN) — A 69-year-old retired corporate meeting planner shares tips for staying calm with a stressed-out high school senior.

A 79-year-old retired teacher tries to reassure a 6-year-old who’s feeling frightened.

And just weeks after retiring from a career running her own company, a 75-year-old is learning to use an AI art program to create cute cat pictures she hopes will make a first grader smile.

They’re among a growing number of mentors across the United States matched with mentees by Eldera, an online platform that uses an AI algorithm to pair adults who are at least 60 with young people ages 5-18 for regular video chats.

“This is how we undo ‘OK Boomer,’” says Eldera co-founder and CEO Dana Griffin.

“When you bring people together one to one, they will figure out how to take care of each other,” she says. “And that’s what we’ve seen.”

Dispelling generational stereotypes is only one part of Eldera’s mission. There’s an even bigger problem Griffin is hoping her company can help solve.

Loneliness, long lamented by mental health experts and recently defined as an epidemic by the US Surgeon General, is hitting older and younger people particularly hard.

And the consequences can be dire. In an advisory in May, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said the health risks of loneliness and isolation are as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

It’s a bleak picture, but Griffin says what she’s seen since Eldera started in the early days of the pandemic has given her hope.

“We created something that…actually has tremendous health benefits to both young and old,” she says, “and I absolutely did not expect that.”

Her mentor helped boost her confidence. She landed a job

Kathleen Zwart lights up as soon as she sees her mentee’s face appear on her computer screen.

Lara Salem is sitting on her bed, with photos of her favorite K-Pop stars hanging on the wall behind her. The 17-year-old puts her head in her hands and laughs as she describes the last week of her life: “chaos, pure chaos.”

She’s been taking care of family members who are sick with the flu and pushing herself through the final stretch of her varsity volleyball season. On top of that, she’s trying to send in her first college applications.

“People are like, senior year is so easy. But it’s way worse than junior year. … It is the most stressful time of my life,” Salem says.

Zwart nods sympathetically as Salem shares her struggles. She’s almost 70 years old and still remembers how tough her senior year of high school was.

“What you just need to do is kind of take a breath, get your mind in the right mindset before you start, and do a little meditation, do a little yoga, do just a little something to sort of chill, to bring yourself sort of centered, and put the stress aside,” she says. “And once you put the stress aside, then you’re in the right frame of mind to do something difficult like fill out the application.”

It’s the kind of gentle guidance Salem has come to rely on since Zwart started mentoring her in January. Like many kids, she gets support from parents, teachers and coaches. But she says one-on-one conversations with her mentor give her a different perspective.

Before she took the SATs, she says Zwart’s advice helped her stay calm and focused. And when she was struggling to find work, Salem says it was Zwart’s encouragement that gave her the confidence she needed to land her first job.

“She said, ‘You need to go in front of the mirror. You need to tell yourself that you will do good, and you are amazing. You’re a good person.’ So I stood in front of the mirror for like five minutes every day telling myself, ‘You got this. You’ll do this. You’ll get the job. You’re amazing,’” Salem told CNN in a recent interview. “It was really awkward at first, but at one point it just felt just natural, and I just started believing myself.”

Zwart knows how important it is to have someone cheering you on through life’s ups and downs. She thinks of one of her older brothers, who would send her words of encouragement in letters while he was fighting in Vietnam. And she remembers how her thirdgrade teacher looked out for her over the years, even when she was no longer a student in her classroom. Kids today need that kind of support, too, Zwart says, especially given how much pressure they’re under.

“What I’ve been trying to do since we were paired up was just boost her up a little bit, you know, just tell her she is good enough, and probably much better than she thinks,” Zwart told CNN.

Zwart lives in Jacksonville. Salem lives across the state in Miami. They never would have met if Eldera hadn’t matched them. But they were surprised to discover how much they have in common. Zwart sent Salem book recommendations. Salem sent Zwart a link to her favorite K-Pop song.

“I feel younger after I talk with her,” Zwart told CNN in a recent interview.

Salem also says the conversations with her mentor leave her feeling refreshed.

“Because I was able to have a conversation, like I’m talking to my best friend, and also learn a few things.”

Creating ‘a virtual village with a human soul’

Griffin says connections like these have helped her see the potential of Eldera to grow well beyond the thousands of active users currently on the platform.

“If we really unlock older adults at scale, every kid in the United States could have their own mentor who shows up for them,” she says.

The name Eldera describes a reality Griffin hopes to help bring back, the “Era of the Elders.”

Griffin says she was raised by her grandparents in Transylvania and felt lucky to grow up with guidance from older people. When she came to the United States as a college student, she continued to seek out older mentors.

“I thought that everyone relied on older adults to navigate life, just because that’s how I grew up,” she says. “The older I got, I realized I was just very fortunate.”

Far too often, Griffin says, older adults are seen as less valuable when they retire, even though they still have wisdom to share.

“They’re kind of pushed out of society, which makes no sense, because we live so much longer than ever,” she says.

On its website, Eldera bills itself as a “virtual village with a human soul.” The company got its start in March 2020, at a time when many people of all ages were stuck at home and craving connection. But Griffin says the platform’s impact hasn’t waned even as much of society has returned to in-person gatherings.

And she says its AI algorithm, which helps match people using about 200 different variables based on their answers to a detailed questionnaire, has gotten even better over time. In addition to conducting criminal background checks of prospective mentors, the company also uses AI to monitor Zoom conversations between mentors and mentees, which are recorded, to make sure interactions are safe and respectful.

If inappropriate behavior or harmful content is detected, the AI model alerts the Eldera team “to take immediate action,” Griffin says.

Griffin is well aware of the concerns some have about the increasing role of AI in society. She notes that humans are always the decisionmakers at Eldera, with AI simply increasing efficiency and offering helpful suggestions.

“AI is not the main focus but rather a tool we use to enhance and protect the human connection,” she says.

And she says a council of mentors serving as advisers, and a website where mentors can connect with each other and exchange ideas, are playing a big role in how the community is taking shape. More recently, a group of mentees have started holding intergenerational meetings with the mentor council and discussing issues like loneliness and mental health.

Eldera allows mentors and parents of mentees to sign up on its website. Children aged 13 and up are able to sign up themselves, but must also provide parental consent.

The platform offers both free and paid access. For $10 a month, Griffin says, participants can have access to additional community resources, like the online forum for mentors. Ultimately, she hopes healthcare providers and insurers will cover the costs as they see Eldera’s benefits for both pediatric and geriatric patients.

Older adults feel a sense of community connection and purpose as they try to support their younger mentees, Griffin says, while children learn valuable social skills that help them build relationships and resilience.

“Supporting young people in becoming resilient, successful adults is not just helping the next generation,” Griffin says. “It’s teaching older adults about what’s important to this generation.”

A retired teacher asked the 6-year-old she mentors to share her goals. The answer shocked her

Constance Morton Belsi, a 79-year-old retired teacher living in central New York, was thrilled from the moment she first met her mentee.

“As soon as we connected via Zoom for each session, I just felt joy,” she says.

The 6-year-old in Texas was smart and funny, with delightfully strong opinions about whatever she wanted to do that day. Sometimes, she’d show Belsi her necklaces and hair clips. Sometimes she’d declare herself a mermaid. Sometimes she’d run to get her backpack and return with a pile of poems to read.

But one time, the little girl seemed more remote than usual. Belsi came up with a question she thought would spark conversation: “What are your goals?”

“She looked at me very seriously,” Belsi says. “Usually she’s all smiles and giggly, and she said, ‘I don’t want to die.’”

Belsi was stunned to hear such somber words from her usually bubbly mentee. But as she heard them, she had no doubt about why she’d shared them. A recent school shooting was in the news. And even schools who hadn’t been directly impacted by gun violence were holding drills to prepare.

The 6-year-old’s mom, who’d been sitting by her side, stepped in with some reassuring words, which Belsi echoed. And then, as quickly as the girl brought up the topic, she moved on.

But the moment stuck with Belsi.

“I felt very sad that she was obviously afraid of something that most children that age in a different era would never need to fear,” she says.

The retired teacher was so shaken that she shared the story with Eldera’s council of mentors. Griffin says it’s a telling example of the kinds of topics mentors are learning about through children’s eyes.

“The mentor is a support for … what the kids are dealing with, which is probably the most any generation has ever dealt with,” she says.

Mentors are reading ‘Harry Potter,’ learning to play video games and using AI to make art

The challenges younger generations face aren’t the only things mentors are learning through Eldera.

Some mentors have formed a book club to start reading Harry Potter books, Griffin says. Many are also picking up new skills and finding new ways to connect with technology.

“My impression of video games was very negative. … That kids just sit in front of the screen all day and shut out the rest of the world. … That was wrong,” says Andrew Weinrich, a 69-year-old in New York City who retired from a job in direct response advertising five years ago and has been volunteering as an Eldera mentor for several years.

But when one his mentees started sharing his screen during their weekly Zoom calls, Weinrich learned there was more to the games he’d previously dismissed.

“There’s this whole world out there that’s super educational and fun,” Weinrich says.

He’s helped his mentee design traffic patterns for cities, decide where to drill oil wells and strategize how to survive on an asteroid with limited resources. Weinrich says it’s helped him open his mind and connect on another level with his 16-year-old mentee.

This month, just weeks after retiring from the company she ran for decades, New Yorker Karen Korman, 75, pushed aside her fears and signed up for an account on Midjourney after hearing that another mentor was using the AI program to make artwork with her mentee.

“I was kind of staying away from it. It seemed very intimidating,” Korman says. But after testing it out on her own, she says now she’s looking forward to using it during her next session with her 6-year-old mentee in Washington, DC.

“I’m really excited for both of us,” she says, “we’re kind of learning together.”

She plans to ask her mentee to tell her a story about whatever artwork they create. They’re still getting to know each other, she says, after being matched a few months ago.

“Hopefully we’ll keep doing this for a number of years,” she says, “and it will just grow.”

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

Article Topic Follows: Health

Jump to comments ↓

CNN Newsource

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION

KIFI Local News 8 is committed to providing a forum for civil and constructive conversation.

Please keep your comments respectful and relevant. You can review our Community Guidelines by clicking here

If you would like to share a story idea, please submit it here.

Skip to content