The Party Line: Linking older Detroiters in a virtual world

Modern technology provides more options to connect socially more than ever before, however, a Cigna study revealed that 46% of the population often feel lonelier than past generations (2018). Social distancing mandates brought on by COVID-19 have only exacerbated these feelings. In response to the need for innovative ways to keep older adults in Detroit connected, the Wayne State University (WSU) School of Social Work and the Healthier Black Elders Center have launched a student intern led virtual social isolation group, The Party Line.

HBEC logoThe Party Line builds on 20 years of successful efforts to provide free health promotion programming and research engagement for over 1,200 older African American community members in Detroit through the Michigan Center for Urban African American Aging Research (MCUAAAR) and its Healthier Black Elders Center (HBEC) of the Michigan Center. MCUAAAR utilizes Michigan's University Research Corridor, an alliance of research powerhouses Wayne State University, The University of Michigan and Michigan State University that focuses on connecting Michigan based research to the world.

The Party Line logoThe Party Line was developed out of the desire to expand upon a telephone outreach program that included more than 2,000 individual phone calls made to older Detroiters between April 2020 and January 2021. "We were looking for a sustainable model to build valuable connections for older adults in Detroit in a group setting," stated WSU Associate Professor of Social Work and The Party Line lead Tam Perry, PhD. "Our Wayne State social work graduate level interns Sarah Whitney and Hannah Gianfermi participated in the telephone program and were the perfect fit to facilitate The Party Line."

Open to older adults and anyone seeking more personal connection in Detroit, The Party Line aims to reduce social isolation through use of the telephone and video conferencing (Zoom). "96 percent of Americans own and know how to use a telephone, be it a land-line or smartphone," stated Perry. "We wanted to make sure that those who want to phone in can enjoy the group interaction just as much as those who want to use Zoom. Our interns have developed creative, meaningful activities that involve both visual and audio interactions."

Sarah Whitney smiling
MSW Intern Sarah Whitney

The Party Line covers a variety of topics that are collectively chosen by participants and facilitators. Previous subjects include preparing for the holidays during a pandemic, mental health, mindfulness, personal histories shared through music and historical events, and a host of other topics that strike a balance between informative and casual. Attendees are encouraged to hold conversations, effectively putting participants in control of the group and reducing isolation for and with one another. "Being placed with the Institute of Gerontology has been really enriching. I made sure that for my first year's field placement I would work in an area of social work that I hadn't explored to broaden my horizons and I'm glad that I did," stated Sarah Whitney. "Working with our members has been such a joy to me. I absolutely love co-hosting Party Line every week and being able to provide a space for folks to relax and enjoy themselves, especially during the pandemic."

Hannah Gianfermi smiling
MSW Intern Hanna Gianfermi

For 86 years, the School of Social Work has been committed to promoting a culture of learning that emphasizes the importance and value of research with real-world hands-on experiences like The Party Line. "My field placement at the Institute of Gerontology has given me the opportunity to work on many different things at any given time throughout the week. We have done abstracts with people in the field of gerontology, sat in on community advisory board consultancies, participated in regular board meetings, attended lectures and webinars on a variety of health topics, developed our own manuscript, and facilitated The Party Line," stated MSW intern Hannah Gianfermi. "Working on The Party Line has helped me understand how older adults are reacting to the pandemic, what they have in common, and what things are still lacking. I have also gained the confidence to pursue other macro research type experiences."

Gianfermi and Whitney will be presenting about the development and activities of The Party Line at the National Council on Aging 2021 Age+Action Virtual Conference and will be featured speakers, along with Perry, at the virtual 2021 Social Work Student Research Symposium taking place on March 26, 2021. "The Party Line program has given Sarah and Hannah the opportunity to learn and grow their social work skills through a pandemic that has significantly reduced in-person interaction. They are doing a fantastic job while developing their skills on facilitating groups, sharing resources, communicating clearly, active listening, establishing boundaries, and reducing social isolation," stated Vanessa Rorai, HBEC Institute of Gerontology community outreach specialist and field intern supervisor. "The Party Line is not only enriching the lives of attendees, but also the learning experience of Sarah and Hannah."

The Party Line is hosted each Tuesday from 1 to 2 pm on Zoom through April 20, 2021. For questions call 313-664-2616 or email Hannah Gianfermi at or Sarah Whitney at

Party Line PDF Flyer

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