Elva Roy wasn’t quite sure what would happen when she finally sat down to videochat with the man she’d been matched with. While pairings of random strangers are common in online dating, they typically don’t involve such a wide age range.
Roy is 74. Daniel Formella is 19. But the two hit it off nicely, spending a couple of hours over two weekends earlier this month and finding they had a lot more in common than they thought.
“It was the most delightful experience,” said Roy, who lives in Arlington. “He is just a fantastic young man. It turns out we had so much to talk about.”
Both had signed up on Big & Mini, a website that seeks to match older people – Bigs – with much younger ones – Minis. As stay-at-home orders remain in force across Texas and the United States, the goal of the site is to give both older and younger generations a chance to connect with someone new and battle social isolation.
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The site, at bigandmini.org, has only been up since early April. It’s the brainchild of Allen Zhou, a 19-year-old electrical and computer engineering major at UT Austin. He worked with Aditi Merchant, 18, a biomedical engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin, and his brother, Anthony, 16, a computer science student at the Texas Academy of Math and Science in Denton, to build the site in less than a week.
“It was really a quick turnaround because my friends and I were galvanized into action by the fact that we had found some way to help. We’d been in quarantine for quite some time and were itching to help,” Zhou said.
Zhou, who lives in Austin, said he volunteered at nursing homes in the past, and was aware of the issue of seniors being isolated even in “normal” times. As he watched retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes get locked down – with even family and friends denied visits – he grew more concerned.
“There are serious mental health issues dealing with social isolation and seniors,” Zhou said. “This was always a problem, but now it was becoming major news. It’s sad that it took COVID-19 to make people see this was a big issue.”
Zhou was used to using video conferencing to talk to his grandparents in Asia, and so came up with Big & Mini, built around the idea of making it simple for young and old people to connect.
Zhou stresses that Big & Mini is not a case of young people helping lonely seniors.
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“It’s not just beneficial for the seniors, but it’s beneficial to the youth as well,” he said. “Both sides are going to gain something. Seniors have had unique lives, and younger people are going be learning things from them you just can’t learn in a classroom.”
Those who want to participate sign up on the site, giving only a little information – name, phone number, an email address – and answering a few questions that are used to make the match. Among them: If you could be any fictional character, who would it be? They also offer times when they are available for a conversation.
Typically, those signing up for a dating site are shown potential matches by a computer algorithm that looks for similarities. But in this case, a human takes over. Zhou and his crew manually look at the sign-ups, then make an effort to make contact with each person to verify who they are.
“We try to talk to every Mini, and most of the Bigs,” he said. “We call as many as we can.”
Once verified, the two are sent emails with a link for the video chat. There is also an option to make the connection via telephone, for those who don’t want to use a computer, smartphone or tablet.
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Big & Mini is designed to be as simple as possible. The site uses an open-source video chat service called Jitsi that is similar to Zoom, the popular video conferencing service. But Jitsi doesn’t require anything to be downloaded and installed, which makes it friendlier for seniors who may not be tech-savvy.
The site is free, and for now the three are paying for it out of their own pockets. If they get a large influx of users, they’ll need to seek funding, Zhou said.
By the end of the week of April 23, 74 Minis have signed up and 39 Bigs. Zhou said links to the site have been posted on several college websites, including the University of California, Davis and at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where Daniel Formella is a student.
After each call, the participants are sent a survey asking if they want to continue talking to the same person, or if they want to try someone else. Both Formella and Roy have decided to continue chatting with each other.
Roy said she wasn’t sure what to expect. She knew where Formella was a student, and that was about it.
“My undergraduate degree and graduate degree are from a Catholic university, so we had that in common,” she said. “But once we got beyond that, it was just one thing after another. We talked for an hour the first time.”
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Formella said he was a little worried that a conversation with someone he didn’t know and wasn’t his age would end up being “a little awkward.”
“But she’s really easy to talk to,” Formella said. “I think we’re forming a real friendship.”
Their first conversation involved learning about each others’ lives, Roy said, but the second “got down to the nitty gritty.”
“We talked religion, politics, there were no holds barred,” she said. “We were able to talk openly about everything.”
Formella went to elementary and junior high school with Zhou, and learned about the project from him. He said he signed up right away.
Roy heard about Big & Mini from a pair of professors at the UT-Arlington school of social work. Zhou’s father teaches electrical engineering at the university. She’s the founder of Ambassadors for Aging Well, a seniors social and advocacy group in Arlington with 535 members. After her positive experience with Formella, Roy has encouraged them to sign up.
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Zhou said the group has been frustrated that more Bigs haven’t signed up. He has talked to the leaders of some seniors’ groups in Austin, and has made connections with a seniors’ Facebook group called Elder Orphans that has more 9,400 members. Zhou said he would be a Facebook Live session there to promote Big & Mini.
Karen Fingerman, a professor at UT-Austin who researches aging and relationships, is also the director of the Texas Aging & Longevity Center. Zhou reached out to her early on and she said she was impressed with his resourcefulness.
“I do research on adults’ family and social ties, I study both younger adults and older adults,” Fingerman said. “So I understand the need for a program that brings them together during this crisis.”
She added that older adults who had more interaction with others and who find themselves now cut off can benefit from Big & Mini. Talking to new people can be more stimulating than always chatting with people who’ve known them a long time.
“It can provide some novelty,” she said. “I don’t have anything new to say to the people I know the best, because (in the lockdown) I am not doing anything new worth talking about.”