Written by Paige Reohr, JoAnna Sendejo, Seferina Dale, Maria Caballero-Rubio, and Ruth Zúñiga and reprinted from The Community Psychologist Volume 54, Number 3, Summer 2021
Older individuals, already susceptible to isolation, are faced with social disparities stemming from loss of connection and social isolation during COVID-19. Here is how Conversaciones con los Abuelos helped.
Social Disparities During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be widely disruptive to social functioning, however, the toll is not equally felt. Older individuals, already susceptible to isolation, are faced with social disparities stemming from loss of connection and social isolation (Kotwal et al., 2020; Tyrrell & Williams, 2020; Wu, 2020). Conversely, experiences of loneliness and isolation among older adults are detrimental to physical and mental health (Miyawaki, 2015; Perissinoto et al., 2012). Loneliness among older adults during the pandemic is especially threatening, as it results in compounded risk factors for worsening health outcomes (Krendi & Perry, 2020; Van Orden et al., 2020).
Due to the loss of community associated with retirement and social role shifts during older adulthood, community during this developmental period is often sought at local community centers or senior groups. Senior centers or groups offer a place for reliable social support from peers, an estimated half of whom live alone (National Council on Aging, 2013). Subsequently, when the pandemic forced community centers to shut down for safety precautions, older adults, like most people, experienced a loss of routines, community, and regular social interaction. While many individuals have found ways to adapt over the course of the pandemic through socially distanced in-person interaction or embracing the utility of technology, it has not been as easy for older adults. The technology that enables remote connection is not available to all, due to financial, accessibility, or value-based barriers to engagement and lack of familiarity with the technology (Kotwal et al., 2020; Pywell et al., 2020). Simultaneously, persistent warnings about the vulnerability of and posed risks to seniors exposed to COVID-19 may leave many older adults fearful to leave their homes.
Given the barriers to social connection for older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation and loneliness are critical social disparities for community-oriented psychologists to address. In regards to ways in which these barriers can be mitigated, mental health professionals can make efforts to meet the community where they are and promote psychological wellness broadly through community-based initiatives.
Program Description: Conversaciones con los Abuelos
Centro Cultural, a non-profit cultural center serving the Latino/a/x community, Oregon is a well-known and trusted community-based organization. Centro Cultural supports individual growth, community leadership, cultural connection, and social relationships in the community. One of Centro Cultural’s programs, Edad de Oro (Golden Age), serves Latino/a/x elders by providing a space for them to share their wisdom and acquire new skills as they build self-confidence and learn to self-advocate (Centro Cultural, n.d.). Most participants are monolingual Spanish speaking immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, who worked in farm labor and have aged into caretaker roles within their extended families. Now in their fourth year, Edad de Oro elders have co-created their own learning environment and have found their voice in the greater community.
Like other senior and community-oriented centers during the COVID-19 pandemic, Edad de Oro participants lost access to daily peer connection due to building closure and social distancing precautions. To continue addressing the need for connection among the community, Centro Cultural’s team shifted their focus from in-person programming to contacting older adult participants regularly via telephone.
Shortly after pandemic-related closures were in effect, graduate psychology students of Pacific University’s Sabiduría: Latinx Psychology Emphasis, a program focused on training clinicians to work with the Latinx community, began supporting the Edad de Oro team’s efforts. Collaboratively, Edad de Oro leadership and Sabiduría developed Conversaciones con los Abuelos (Conversations with Grandparents), a program with the mission of providing social and emotional support to vulnerable older adults and guiding elders through navigating barriers to getting specific needs. Conversaciones con los Abuelos fosters social and emotional wellness by connecting graduate psychology students with Edad de Oro older adults for weekly phone conversations.
Since the beginning of the program in June 2020, through December 2020, 17 graduate student volunteers engaged in approximately 225 calls with the Edad de Oro elders, amounting to approximately 40 hours of provided support. Student volunteers also provided items of correspondence (i.e., letters, holiday cards) and identified and supported needs (i.e., community resources, essential needs such shoes, heaters, etc.) to the elders throughout the entirety of the program’s duration as an additional means of support. Older adults shared their wisdom, stories, and also helped many students improve their cultural competencies and linguistic skills. Elders further received information and resources on emotional health through delivery of emotional health care kits created by graduate student volunteers, which was funded by a state organization (Trauma Informed Oregon). Emotional health care kits highlighted items that elders can use to practice culturally appropriate self-care and to start conversations about emotional and mental health. Additionally, many of the products were bought from local and/or Latino/a/x-owned businesses.
The partnership between Centro Cultural and Sabiduría has benefitted broadly. Volunteering to alleviate loneliness among community-dwelling older adults not only offers a way to find meaning, feel rewarded, and often act in accordance with one’s values (Sundström et al., 2020), but it also, addresses health disparities by fostering social and emotional wellness among vulnerable populations. Additionally, during times of disaster, such as the current pandemic, giving back to and supporting others are ways to promote hope, resiliency, and wellbeing (Piliavin & Siegl, 2007). Through this program, both elder participants and graduate student volunteers have reported reciprocal gratitude for the opportunity to connect during a time of isolation and appreciation for the genuine relationships that have formed as a result of this partnership. For graduate student volunteers in Sabiduría, the ability to provide support to the elders has been rewarding, as providing outreach and community service to vulnerable and marginalized communities is a shared value. These opportunities for communication have also given students insight into the unique experiences and wisdom of this vulnerable and yet resilient population, which has positively impacted the students greatly at personal and professional levels. For the seniors, supporting the new generation of psychologists may be another way to aid their wellbeing, as literature points to the protective effects of volunteering for older adults (Guiney & Machado, 2018).
Implications and Recommendations
Conversaciones con los Abuelos is a collaborative initiative between a graduate psychology training program and a community-based organization focused on supporting social and emotional needs of older adults. Through this collaboration, students have experienced the significance of stepping into our communities with the intent of “sharing psychology”, helping communities reclaim their emotional health, and supporting social-emotional wellness (Evans, 2020). Additionally, this collaboration has the potential to meaningfully mitigate negative outcomes associated with the abundance of risk factors posed to older adults during the pandemic and to support elders from historically marginalized groups who may be isolated from social connection and service utilization and culturally responsive programs (Dumbeck, 2019; Schneider et al., 2014). Partnerships can also serve to foster health equity among a historically marginalized population by “ensuring older adults’ effective access to community‐based services [and] fostering their social participation” within their own communities (Turcotte et al., 2020, pg. 417).
Community-based collaborative efforts that empower communities and support community leaders’ agendas are a valuable tool to address the health disparities present within our communities (Suarez-Balcazar et al., 2020). As such, the times call for psychologists to become involved in community-based interventions and outreach focused on supporting our communities’ vulnerable populations (Kuy et al., 2020). Creative interventions, like Conversaciones con los Abuelos, can be easily implemented as a way to engage trainees with community-based work and to practice culturally responsive work and serve their communities. We recommend psychology professionals and trainees connect with organizations serving their communities to discuss and collaborate on addressing gaps in social, emotional, and mental health care. This is a valuable opportunity for students to see the promotion of psychological wellness as efforts that exist both in and outside of a therapy room and to get creative in developing innovative interventions to promote health and wellness. Further, students involved in the collaborative program development process, working directly with the community of interest, could benefit from exploring the potential to empower historically marginalized or vulnerable communities.
For questions and comments, please contact Paige Reohr via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, JoAnna Sendejo at email@example.com or Dr. Ruth Zúñiga at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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