Older Americans are at risk of experiencing social isolation and loneliness, which can lead to poor physical and mental health outcomes, including an increased risk of dementia, hopelessness, anxiety, and even increased morbidity. A new research project at Georgia State University and Virginia Tech, funded by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), aims to develop guidelines for caregivers to help address the risks and consequences of isolation in the elderly can.
“Social support is one of the strongest predictors of positive psychological outcomes during a disaster, and phone-based social connections have been identified as a potential strategy to support this vulnerable population,” describes ACL in a blog post highlighting September as suicide Month of Prevention. “With funding from ACL, Georgia State University and Virginia Tech research teams developed guidelines to train natural workers, including volunteers in the Senior Nutrition Programs, to make meaningful connections and socialize with socially isolated older adults receiving HCBS support financially.”
The volunteers were each assigned one of two separate training programs. The “be” program is a two-hour training that focuses on using belonging and empathy to combat social isolation and loneliness and create meaningful connections with a “warm-up” intervention, “the post says.
The “be with” program combines standardized, telephone-based social connection training with “a version of the 14-hour evidence-based Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), which is adapted for the aging network,” explains the ACL-Post.
After the volunteers complete the training programs, they conduct weekly “hot conversations” with eight older adults via an automated telephone system that connects volunteers with participants while protecting user privacy. Calls are recorded and transcribed, and “prospective continuous outcome data is also collected and managed in a cloud-based data management system that integrates the longitudinal data with the encoded data from the recorded audio files,” the post says.
Upon completion of each call, the older adult who received one of the calls will be connected to a member of the research team and provide validated measurements of their individual experiences. Volunteers also regularly report to researchers about any particular senior issues that need to be addressed, including needs related to food, cleanliness, or access issues.
“They have no idea about the blessing,” said one participant, describing the program. Another said: “[I] I have the feeling that someone is thinking of me “and”[I] Object.”
“One participant reported that she had started implementing the calls on her own social network – she wanted her colleagues to feel the same connectedness as she did with her volunteer,” the post reads. “In time, we will have the opportunity to improve our program so that it can be replicated across the ACL aging and disability network and equip generous volunteers to BE with older adults, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and Furthermore.”
Read more about the research and the specific program at the ACL website.