Millie Jacoby met her new “French grandma” for the first time last week via video call.
The 21-year-old British student signed up to a scheme pairing language students with elderly French people, some of whom have been left isolated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I thought it would be a great way to improve my language skills and get to know somebody who was possibly lonely,” Millie said.
“My French grandma, as we call them, is in a retirement home and might not be having too much social interaction because of the pandemic so I thought it was the perfect time to do something like this.”
Despite the 70-year age gap between the Warwick University student and the senior citizen living near Paris, they instantly hit it off.
“She was just so lovely from the first few sentences,” Millie told the BBC.
“We talked about travelling. We spoke about the times I’ve been to France and what I thought of it. We spoke about the differences between what her life was like as a young person compared to mine.”
A Twitter post about their “wholesome” exchange went viral over the weekend, sparking a surge of interest in the programme.
my french grandma is 91 and she likes knitting and lives in a retirement home and asked me at the end “i’m not boring you too much am i? would you like to call again next week?
— millie December 4, 2020
The Share Ami scheme, by French non-profit organisation Oldyssey, has created 30 pairings since launching in May. But in just a few days, they received enquiries from almost 3,000 more people from countries around the world wanting to sign up.
“We didn’t expect it to go viral at this time so students will be waiting for some months I think before we find seniors for everybody. We will have to contact a lot of elderly homes in France and we want to do it all properly,” said Oldyssey co-founder Clement Boxebeld.
Clement said he had got the idea for the scheme in 2018 while on a trip to Brazil, where a language school had formed relationships with retirement homes in the US and Canada.
“We loved the idea and thought about it for two years but didn’t have time to make it happen” until the pandemic suspended other projects.
“We thought it was the right moment to launch it because elderly people are especially at risk with the virus. First they couldn’t go outside and then after confinement, because they are at risk, a lot of seniors are still afraid to go outside. We wanted to find ways to create links despite the social constraints we had,” he said.
“There were a lot of initiatives to create links with older people but we wanted also to highlight the fact that older people can be useful to the younger generation.”
As well as connecting the older French people with students, volunteers with the project offer technology support and sit in on the first meeting to ensure there are no awkward silences.
Clement said it had been “very funny” to see two strangers meeting via video