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Preventing Senior Isolation During the COVID-19 Pandemic

An Interview with the Student-Senior Isolation Prevention Partnership

By Daisy Liu


Though the negative impacts of senior isolation have long been identified, this issue has become increasingly pertinent during the pandemic.


Potential risk factors for isolation include:

  1. Living alone

  2. Moving to a new residence or community

  3. Having a small social network

  4. Being over 80 years of age

  5. Experiencing a decline in physical and/or mental/cognitive health

Consequently, isolated seniors are at greater risk of poor health due to factors such as falls, depression, dementia, and reduced quality of sleep. The Student-Senior Isolation Partnership Program, first established at the University of Toronto, aims to reduce social isolation and has recently adapted to continue its mission in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Hello! Could you please introduce yourself? (name, year, fun fact about yourself)


Grace: “My name is Grace and I am currently a second-year med student at the University of Toronto. Within UofT’s SSIPP chapter, I am the patient recruitment lead along with another exec. Basically, my role within SSIPP is to communicate with healthcare providers and patients since I’m the first point of contact that they have with SSIPP. I'll take them through the referral process and address any questions that they may have.”


Lauren: “I'm Lauren and I'm also a second-year medical student at UofT. I'm a logistics coordinator for SSIPP. I have a co-logistic coordinator and we are in charge of the recruitment of student volunteers. We match students with seniors and we have a cohort of volunteer coordinators that we meet with regularly and address any concerns they may be having”


Could you tell me a little more about the Student-Senior Isolation Prevention Partnership? What is SSIPP? What drove the formation of SSIPP?


Grace: “I can start by introducing SSIPP. Student-Senior Isolation Prevention Partnership, also known as SSIPP for short, is an initiative that was originally started by the University of Toronto and the Toronto Western Family Health Team. Prior to COVID, SSIPP matched healthcare professional students with older adults in the community for in-person visits aimed at providing social comfort and connection. But, during COVID, SSIPP adapted its initiatives to occur exclusively via phone. This is in order to better connect with older adults who may be at risk of social isolation as a result of recent social distancing restrictions. Since COVID-19 began, SSIPP has expanded nationally and we currently have six university chapters across Canada. We tell all our patients and healthcare providers what SSIPP aims to do: SSIPP aims to provide friendly phone calls once a week to older adults. We hope to build health literacy around COVID-19 and we help connect older adults with relevant community resources. We support older adults with using video call technology and we also provide grocery delivery services to older adults who may not be able to use other community resources.”


Lauren: SSIPP was actually started before the pandemic. It was recognised that social isolation in older adults is a major public health concern because, as people age, it's known that they undergo changes that predispose them to a more solitary life. They retire, they're more likely to live alone and experience the loss of friends and family, and then it becomes harder for them to connect with peers due to physical health constraints. This altogether puts older adults at increased risk for social isolation, which is associated with various poor physical and mental health outcomes. A group of medical students at UofT recognised this and acknowledged the need to intervene and support older adults. They established SSIPP, which is the Student-Senior Isolation Prevention Partnership, in January of 2019, a little over 2 years ago.


SSIPP initially recruited medical students and undergraduate students to make at-home in-person visits to older adults to provide companionship and support. But this obviously had to be adapted when COVID hit. With COVID, older adult isolation became even more pertinent of an issue as seniors were asked to stay inside and stay more distant from others- they needed companionship more than ever. So, in March and April of 2020, SSIPP undertook a very large recruitment and was met with a large influx of volunteers. Now, SSIPP includes student volunteers from all graduate-level health faculties at the University of Toronto in addition to medical students and has also expanded across the country. Thus, there are now several other chapters at Canadian medical schools far and wide.”


If this isn’t too personal of a question, why do you personally believe the work of SSIPP is important? What do you think you bring to SSIPP?


Grace: “For me, I can see how senior isolation is actually a very real issue. I live with my grandmother at home and, before COVID-19, she used to be very active in the community. She would often go to church and she would go on walks with her friends. Ever since COVID-19 started, she's just been staying at home and I realise that she's been less active. There are less activities for her to do because a lot of her interests lie in socialising with her friends. Because of that, my grandma said that she's really grateful that she at least has her family who lives with her or else she would be really alone. She's very fortunate in the fact that she does live with family. I think a lot of older adults are less fortunate because they live at home or they are far from families. So, I believe SSIPP is really helpful in the fact that we connect volunteers with older adults and there's weekly contact. You at least have some companionship.”


Lauren: “I similarly have personal experience regarding my own grandfather. He does live alone. He's 89 and he lives in an apartment by himself unassisted. Prior to COVID, he made a big effort to see my family, his friends, etc. because he has chosen to live alone. He is fortunately in good enough physical and mental health to live alone but, with COVID, he has not been fortunate enough to see people. He has relied on phone calls from family and from friends to literally keep going. I call him regularly and I know how much the phone calls from myself and my sister and my family mean to him so I felt like I had somewhat of a social responsibility, our generation has a social responsibility, to reach out to the elders in the community who are in this position of real isolation and do what we can to mitigate this in any way possible. It makes such an impact and I'm seeing the impact it makes first hand. That really motivated me to become a volunteer for SSIPP back in March of 2020 and then take a more active role in facilitating the program.”


As you see it, how does SSIPP’s work contribute to increasing healthcare accessibility?


Lauren: “We have, over the past couple of months, tried to build a document with health literacy facts for our volunteers and for our seniors. The goal was to create a clear and comprehensive outline of what COVID-19 is and what the guidelines are, especially for seniors, and what seniors can do with COVID-19 being what it is in order to stay healthy and stay safe. By putting together this document and having our volunteers tell our seniors this information, we are hoping to increase health literacy surrounding COVID-19 in the older adult community. SSIPP also helps to connect older adults with community resources. We have a Question-and-Answer sheet that we give to all of our volunteers who can then relay this information to our seniors and share resources. Some of these resources include where to find grocery delivery services, where to find food banks that are open at various hours, and how to access financial services if seniors are finding themselves financially insecure due to the pandemic or otherwise.


Grace: If I could just add on to Lauren's point, SSIPP also has a mini system. It’s not a formal system, but volunteers really take the initiative to make sure that older adults don't fall off the radar. I can give you an example–there are volunteers who regularly call their senior but they'll call one week and their senior won't pick up and they'll try to follow up a couple of times with phone calls within that week but then their senior also doesn’t pick up. What will happen then is the volunteer will reach out to one of the executives to notify the team that they were unable to contact their older adult. Then, the executive contacts the healthcare professional to see if there has been a change in contact information or in living situations. I think this situation is better than if the seniors were not in contact with any volunteers because then there might be the chance that no one would know if the senior was doing ok or not, so this is one way this can contribute to better healthcare overall.”


As you see it, what is the greatest problem so far for healthcare accessibility among seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic?


Grace: “I'm not sure if this is the greatest problem, but one problem that I've heard of frequently is regarding transportation. A lot of times, people need to rely on public transit. Now obviously, with the coronavirus, it is seen as more dangerous. And, if what you used to rely on is public transit, it's difficult to have someone drive you around, maybe a family member or friend, all the time on demand. And then, sometimes, you hesitate to reach out to friends and family that are not in your immediate bubble. I suppose, this pandemic creates greater challenges for certain populations and this population would include populations with limited mobility who are unable to walk to nearby grocery stores, people with language barriers, and individuals with a lower socioeconomic status.”


Lauren: “In addition to that, I think there is a general reluctance for older adults to visit hospitals and primary care sites due to the fear of contracting COVID-19. And then there's also altered hours and appointment protocols which can be confusing for older adults and inconvenient so that's certainly an issue. There's also reduced hours and operations in various community organisations such as housing programs and food backs etc. So, finding some of these necessary resources becomes a lot more difficult and accessing them may not be as convenient as it was prior to the pandemic. We’re also seeing a decrease in social capital. By being around people less often and by not socialising with peers and others, there's decreased information sharing. Seniors aren't able to communicate via word-of-mouth for where to find various healthcare resources whereas they might have opted to communicate via word-of-mouth prior. Often, there are lags in technological skills so having this social capital was very important prior to the pandemic and it's been more difficult because of the isolation.”


What advice do you have for readers of the UTIHP editorial for preventing senior isolation around them?


Grace: “On a personal level, you can reach out and check in with friends and family because, as Lauren and I mentioned before, a lot of people are feeling isolated during this time and especially seniors. You can really make someone's day better by reaching out and just chatting. It shows that you care about them, and at the end of the day, it might make you feel happier as well.”


Lauren: “Also, keep an eye out for opportunities, whether that be on Facebook, in the newspaper, or on TV. There are many initiatives that are still making a positive impact on communities during the pandemic. Staying aware, staying involved in the community is surely a suggestion.”


Do you have any suggestions on how people can get involved, especially with relation to the two problems that you mentioned during the previous question?


Grace: “If you are a healthcare professional student and you're interested in getting involved with SSIPP, please do not hesitate to email us at ssippvolunteer@gmail.com. We're always on the lookout for more volunteers. We have an increasing demand for our services, so we are definitely grateful for any help we can get.”


What advice do you have for readers of the UTIHP editorial who are still hoping to help out with pandemic efforts?


Lauren: “I think contacting places like food banks, local grocery stores, local pharmacies, to see if they have any sort of delivery service for older adults in the community. I know a lot of older adults do struggle to get groceries and to fill their prescription. Most people are fortunate enough to have some older adults in their life, whether that be grandparents, parents, or friends of parents or whatnot. We're fortunate to live in a society where there are lots of older adults. Just try to engage with any of them, via phone call or email even. Try to engage the older adults in your life.”


Grace: “One advice is that, if you want to help out, you should definitely ask around. Personally, I don't go on Facebook that often. A lot of the opportunities that I hear about are actually from word-of-mouth. I tell people close to me that I’m interested in making an effort to help in this pandemic, and they'll say "Oh, I know of a cool opportunity!" and this is where many opportunities can arise. So definitely, if you want to make a difference, just make it known to the people around you, and I’m sure some opportunity will come.”


If you are interested in becoming a volunteer for the Student-Senior Isolation Partnership, please visit here to submit an application.


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