Tufts students work to ease social isolation of older adults during the pandemic

The Medford senior center is pictured. Aaron Apostadero / The Tufts Daily

Disclaimer: Arielle Galinsky is a contributing writer at The Tufts Daily. Arielle was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.

As COVID-19 swept through nursing homes across the United States in the early months of the pandemic, the country’s health care resources became focused on containing the spread of the disease, especially among the most vulnerable citizens. By late June 2020, 54,000 nursing home residents and workers had died from COVID-19. Despite making up less than 1% of the U.S. population, nursing home residents represented 43% of COVID-19 deaths at the time.

After nursing homes bore the brunt of early COVID-19 deaths, the nation moved to stop the spread among the population. Nursing homes were left reeling from such devastating losses, trying to train workers on proper precautions and dealing with financial struggles. During this stage, a new threat to the health of America’s elder population emerged, one that has long plagued this population but is often overlooked. The mental health crisis resulting from social isolation and anxiety is now exponentially worse

One student group at Tufts has set out to combat this issue on a local scale, providing volunteer opportunities targeted at pre-health students to ease the isolation of the geriatric community. Advocates for Quality Aging (AQA) began in fall 2020 as a health care blog featuring interviews with geriatric health care providers, social workers and others in the industry. Founder Paul Ly wanted to give pre-health students at Tufts an idea of what life was like for those serving the geriatric community.

Ly, a senior, discovered an interest in geriatric care after his sophomore year at Tufts when he returned home to Seattle for the summer.

“I found this adult day care center called Full Life Care, and I pretty much spent my whole summer working with them, taking care of older adults, running these mini book club sessions,” Ly said. “We do this thing called memory care to help older adults kind of just jog [their] memory. I also spent a lot of time shadowing a geriatric primary care provider, so I learned a lot about how older adults in certain areas may get different levels of access to health care and such.”

Ly’s interest in educating students about geriatric care transformed during the pandemic.

“Initially I wanted to provide a lot of pre-health students on this campus [with] an idea of how the older adult population is growing and how there should be more health care providers ready to tackle this incoming wave of older adults,” Ly said. “But over time that passion kind of turned more into a volunteering passion, and I think it makes even more sense now than ever because we’re in a pandemic.”

The difficulty of reaching health care workers amid a pandemic and the logistical restraints of physical distancing brought about a new focus for AQA.

“Our group had to take a bit more of a creative approach,” Ly said. “How can we make use of any other technology we have while providing students with a good volunteer experience [and] easing the loneliness of older adults?” 

AQA has launched a partnership with the Medford Council on Aging where volunteers help geriatric patients access now-ubiquitous virtual services such as Zoom and lead a weekly book club, according to sophomore Ivian Zhang, director of community events for AQA. Elders have had a particularly hard time dealing with social isolation, as many of them are less familiar with virtual ways of staying in touch than younger populations.

The Tufts Public Health Society is another group that has taken initiative in easing the isolation of geriatric adults. The group has partnered with the Medford Senior Center to provide a similar service where volunteers call residents on a weekly basis. First-year Arielle Galinsky, a Tufts Public Health Society board member, has long been interested in intergenerational communication and wanted to continue this work during the pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit, and with the understanding that these senior residents were some of the hardest hit by the impacts of social isolation, I got involved by becoming a ‘call coach’ to 50–60 residents weekly,” Galinsky wrote in an email to the Daily. “I knew that both the senior citizens and students alike could benefit from conversation during a period of such isolation.”

The work has not been without challenges, however, and both AQA and Tufts Public Health Society have experienced unexpected setbacks that required creative solutions.

“Seniors are weary to lend their phone numbers out to people they do not know — which is totally understandable,” Galinsky said. “The hope is to get every student matched, or at least find another avenue for that student to get involved with doing something to uplift the spirits of Medford seniors.”

AQA currently has about 30 active members working as volunteers. Like some other clubs this year, it is experiencing some difficulty engaging those who have expressed interest but were not placed in volunteer positions.

“We try to not turn away help … and I’m assuming that the people that sign up for volunteering are pre-health students who are just looking for volunteer opportunities, and I understand that during this pandemic, it’s just mad hard to find volunteering opportunities,” Ly said. “My goal is to [create] as many volunteering opportunities as possible for the students.”

In an effort to achieve this goal and help as many geriatric adults as possible, AQA will soon launch three new volunteering initiatives with a local hospice. These include a pen pal program, phone call program and fundraising campaign led by Tufts students to raise money for personal protective equipment, Ly said.

AQA has additional plans to get more students interested in geriatric healthcare.

“Aside from volunteering, we’re going to focus on bringing back the blog, but we’re also going to focus on scientific engagement — bringing in speakers from the National Institute of Aging, or maybe the Massachusetts Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases, getting them to talk about age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s [and] dementia,” Ly said.

Ly highlighted the many social difficulties faced by elders, and pointed out similar challenges faced by students at the moment.

“It’s difficult because [elders] can’t physically leave their homes to go for a walk in the park or such, and it’s also kind of the same way for us students — we’re kind of required to stay in our dorms and quarantine, follow social distancing and COVID-19 protocols,” Ly said.

He also described systemic issues with nursing homes that have been brought to the fore by the pandemic.

“[The pandemic] shows that disparities in health care are very real for older adults,” Ly said. “If you have a lot of money you can afford to stay in a very luxurious and nice nursing home and you have access to competent staff members, but if you don’t have that much money then you end up getting placed in … pretty crappy nursing homes. You might end up getting stuck with very incompetent health care workers.”

However, Ly is optimistic about virtual programs such as Zoom reducing social isolation and providing safe, accessible volunteer opportunities for those looking to help. Ly predicts such technology might stick around after the pandemic because of its ability to connect volunteers to adults living in remote areas.

Overall, Ly is proud of the work AQA has done and anticipates much more to come.

“I think the pandemic makes us even more passionate about our mission than before,” Ly said. “The term social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. … With Zoom, all these platforms, we’ve been able to reach out to a lot of older adults and I’m very happy with the direction that AQA is taking.”

Galinsky has come away from this experience with a renewed appreciation for the importance of connection, and sees it as one of the few things we can rely on during times such as these.

“A phone call to an elderly individual [in] your life (whether it be your grandmother or a neighbor) can make an enormous positive impact on their spirits,” Galinsky said. “While there is a lot that cannot be controlled during the pandemic, we are all capable of developing and maintaining connections with the most vulnerable populations.”

Galinsky has also been thankful for virtual platforms and wants to continue this work but hopes to return to in-person formats once possible.

“My goal, post-COVID, is to initiate a program where Tufts students physically go to local nursing homes or senior communities, pair up with one of the residents, and learn and document their life stories,” Galinsky said.

Zhang sees this focus on quality of life, rather than longevity, as the primary goal for future geriatric health care workers.

“Our predecessors’ work has significantly lengthened the lifespan of the average person, and it is down to us now to care for the wellness of geriatric populations,” Zhang wrote in an email to the Daily. “We also should never overlook the individuality of geriatric patients [or] ignore their unique life perspectives.”


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