Students Connect With Elders to Combat Social Isolation During Pandemic

December 8, 2020
By: Nancy Sheehan

Elders these days are facing a “double pandemic”—COVID-19 and the isolation that results from following advice to stay home as much as possible. To combat the resulting loneliness and frustration, the Urban Action Institute, within the Department of Urban Studies, received a $40,000 grant from the Central Massachusetts Agency on Aging to carry out a community engagement project, “Intergenerational Engagement: A Program to Reduce Elder Social Isolation in the Time of COVID-19.”Adam Saltsman and Tom Conroy

Adam Saltsman, Ph.D., assistant professor of Urban Studies and director of the Urban Action Institute, and Thomas Conroy, Ph.D., chair of Urban Studies, are co-principal investigators for the grant.

The grant has allowed a variety of professors and students to develop ways to help senior citizens combat isolation in the community through a series of programs and subcontracts spanning both schools within the university.

“The goal of this project is to engage with the elderly population in the Greater Worcester Area through online interaction and learning opportunities,” Conroy says. “We reached out to other faculty on campus who are already working with elders. [Associate Professor] Nicole Rosa [of the Psychology Department], for example, integrated into her class a weekly connections program, where her students will have weekly phone conversations with elders on a given topic, and that’s worked out really well.”

The connections students make with their new elder friends are mutually beneficial, he says.

“The connections that students are forming with these seniors are truly authentic connections,” Conroy says. “This is not an, ‘Oh, this is something I’m getting a grade for’ kind of thing. They are forming bonds even though they may be separated by 50 years. If a student doesn’t call a couple times, the senior might text and say, ‘What’s going on?’ The student will say, ‘Oh, I’ve been busy.’ ‘Okay. Drop me a text.’ There are there a lot of these life things that are happening. It’s not just about the curriculum. It’s also about how to function in a diverse society in terms of race and also age.”

Initiatives have included shared readings, videos, and mini lectures that serve as discussion starters. Online video topics include urban gardening, nutritional tips, healthy living, music of the Americas, virtual classes for English Language Learners (ELL) and opportunities to be an English language tutor.

“This project stems from the belief that Urban Studies and the Urban Action Institute have, that it’s important to use an asset-based approach with seniors,” Saltsman says. “We want to engage them as people who have a lifetime of experience and skills to bring to bear. It’s not a charity project. It’s a way of engaging with this important segment of our population in Worcester.”

The Urban Action Institute was initially organized as the Intergenerational Urban Institute, so a grant aimed at helping elders was a natural fit, Saltsman says.  “The Urban Action Institute has continued to nurture the legacy of engaging with seniors in many ways, and it was great to have grant support to help meet their needs as the pandemic wears on.”

The challenges are ongoing, however. “We recognize that this project is one small piece of the intervention needed to address this issue,” Saltsman says.

Even before the pandemic, older adults were particularly at risk for loneliness. The isolation that stems from virus mitigation measures such as stay-at-home advisories can be especially hard on them. The Cleveland Clinic, a nationally noted health-care organization, advises caretakers, neighbors, family, and friends to be on the lookout for memory loss, depression, and anxiety in older adults. Locally, resources are available through agencies such as Elder Services of the Worcester Area, which offers several programs including Holiday Cheer for Older Adults, a volunteer card and letter writing initiative that aims to uplift isolated elders during the holiday season.

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