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New Research Helps Craft Guidelines for Combating Senior Loneliness

Older Americans are at risk of experiencing social isolation and loneliness, which can lead to poor physical and mental health outcomes including an elevated risk of dementia, hopelessness, anxiety and even increased morbidity. A new research project at Georgia State University and Virginia Tech with funding from the Administration for Community Living (ACL) has aimed to develop guidelines for caregivers which can assist in combating the risks and consequences of senior isolation.

“Social support is one of the strongest predictors of positive psychological outcomes during disaster, and phone-based social connection has been identified as a potential strategy to support this at-risk population,” ACL describes in a blog post made to highlight September as Suicide Prevention Month. “With funding from ACL, research teams at Georgia State University and Virginia Tech developed guidelines to train natural helpers, including volunteers in the Senior Nutrition Programs, in making meaningful connections and fostering socialization with socially isolated older adults receiving HCBS.”

Volunteers were each assigned one of two separate training programs. The “be” program is a 2-hour training that “focuses on using belonging and empathy to combat social isolation and loneliness, and making meaningful connections with a ‘warm-call’ intervention,” the post reads.

The “be with” program combines a standardized, phone-based social connection training with, “a version of the 14-hour evidence-based Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) adapted for the aging network,” the ACL post explains.

After volunteers have completed the training programs, they engage in weekly “warm calling” to eight older adults through an automated phone system which connects volunteers with participants while observing users’ privacy. Calls are recorded and transcribed, and “prospective continuous outcome data also is collected and managed on a cloud-based data management system that integrates the longitudinal data with the coded data from the recorded audio files,” the post reads.

After the completion of each call, the older adult who received one of the calls is connected to a member of the research team, and provides validated measures of their individual experiences. Volunteers also regularly report to researchers about any particular issues a senior has that needs to be addressed, including needs regarding food, cleanliness or issues of access.

“You have no idea the blessing,” one participant described about the program. Another said, “[I] feel like someone is thinking about me,” and  “[I] matter.”

“One participant reported that she started implementing the calls within her own social network — she wanted her peers to feel the same sense of connection that she had with her volunteer,” the post reads. “With time, we will have the opportunity to enhance our program so that it can be replicated throughout ACL’s aging and disability network, equipping big hearted volunteers to BE WITH older adults, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.”

Read more about the research and the specific program at the ACL website.

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