With the risk of serious illness from COVID-19 increasing with age, older people have been encouraged to self-isolate during the pandemic. Unfortunately, these recommendations may raise other concerns – research shows that social isolation and loneliness are associated with increased risks of chronic disease, hospitalization and premature death.
UConn’s School of Social Work students in the Masters of Social Work (MSW) and Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) programs connect with older adults in Hartford and surrounding areas to help fight against this isolation within the framework of a new research project known under the name of SLIP: the Intergenerational Social Isolation / Solitude Project.
The 10 students assigned to the project as part of their field internship are each paired with four or five older adults, most of whom typically visit Hartford’s senior centers run by Catholic charities, speaking by phone or by video chat twice a week. Students will be trained in reminiscence therapy and life review techniques and will use them to bond with their senior mates. A pre-test and a post-test will assess participants’ loneliness at the start and end of the eight week period.
Tours will begin over the phone as most seniors are comfortable with this mode of communication, but can switch to video calls if seniors are interested, possibly using OneClick.chat, access which the company has provided free of charge to. the School of Social Work year round. The platform is designed to be easy for older people to use, and the National Institutes of Health has funded studies into its use in addressing social isolation.
“What I like about this project is that it was really driven by the needs of the community,” says Assistant Professor Rupal Parekh, who co-leads the project with Associate Professor and MSW Program Director Brenda Kurz .
At the start of the pandemic, Parekh asked Joel Cruz, a partner in another project and director of the Institute of Hispanic Family and Family Strengthening Programs at Catholic charities, how older people who regularly attend schools Catholic charities for the elderly were coping after the centers were closed. keep them safe.
Despite the programming provided by the senior centers via video streaming services, according to Cruz, the elderly – many of whom previously came to their senior centers every day – really lacked human connection.
“We hear in our visits, our wellness checks and our phone calls: ‘I really miss the human touch, spending time with other people that I’ve become a fan of,” says Cruz. “Many have lost weight, others will say they feel anxious or depressed or start to cry when on the phone with their case manager.”
Often, 15-minute phone health checks turn into 90-minute conversations. Parekh remembers that Cruz had told him that there was “no way” that four or five members of the staff could meet the needs of the elderly who called several times a week.
At that time, Kurz was working with MSW students whose in-person internships had been canceled due to the pandemic, and wanted to start a service project to help older people in need. She contacted Parekh, who specializes in working with the elderly, and they brought the groups together.
“I was inspired by how quickly faculty and staff have developed programs in response to COVID-19 and related social work needs,” says Melanie Klinck ’21 MSW, a student who attended this summer to the service project which became SLIP. “It’s something I’ll always remember. As social workers we need to be flexible, adaptable and proactive; we must respond to the immediate needs of the community.
Klinck says the man she was paired with seemed to genuinely enjoy their conversations and opened up to her more and more about her life experiences over the weeks. But the benefits have gone both ways, she says.
“One thing I thought about during the program was that we tend to surround ourselves with people who are like us. It was a great opportunity to step out of our comfort zones to talk to someone different from us, ”says Klinck. “The intergenerational aspect made it really interesting. In the past, I have mostly worked with teenagers and young adults. This is one of the first times that I have worked with the elderly population, and I would now consider working with the elderly in my future career.
Giving students experience working with older populations is a benefit of the program, Parekh says. “It’s a way to introduce students to how wonderful it can be to work with seniors. It is essential that we do this at the School of Social Work. According to 2017 US Census data, Connecticut has the sixth highest median age in the country.
The team hopes SLIP will show the power of connection and the therapeutic techniques used to combat the effects of isolation.
Drastic measures taken in recent months to curb the spread of the coronavirus have resulted in the abrupt end of activities older adults and students are used to and enjoy, Parekh says.
“Conversations using reminiscence therapy and life review techniques can help develop more positive feelings while reducing stress,” she says. “Its intergenerational aspect helps to bond and can help reduce the sense of isolation between the two groups.”
“Our case managers are in contact with our elders, but there is nothing to quantify the impact. For the moment, these are just stories, ”says Cruz. “I think the study will solidify what case managers have noticed from the start – that the more isolated adults there are in contact with people, even if it’s over the phone, the better.