It is a time of concern for older adults.
Data from the United Nations shows that by 2050, one in every six people in the world will be over the age of 65, up from one in 11 in 2019. The U.S. Census data shows that by 2030, one in every five citizens will be retirement age. And presently 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day.
Within the age of COVID-19, there is an urgent need to address not only the risk of infection for older adults, but also other health risks – such as isolation – imposed by the pandemic, as well as other intersecting challenges.
“We’re going to need more people with expertise in aging. There’s no way around it,” says Dr. Elise Eifert, who coordinates the graduate program in gerontology at UNC Greensboro.
At UNCG, students can pursue an undergraduate minor in gerontology, as well as fully online post-baccalaureate certificate and online master’s programs – all three of those tracks can help prepare them to meet the needs of older adults and make a visible difference in their quality of life.
Many of UNCG’s gerontology students already work in the healthcare environment, have experienced the strain of the pandemic firsthand, and are working day and night to lessen harmful impacts, in a variety of ways.
Eifert says she’s been impressed with the way current students have pivoted in the exceptional times to initiate and carry out self-directed course projects that improve the lives of older adults within the COVID-19 pandemic era.
Master’s student Melissa Smith manages a program through Winston-Salem’s Senior Services called Aging With Purpose. Her mission is to fight what they call “the three plagues” of aging: loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. Previous to the COVID-19 pandemic, they provided in-person companionship and meaningful activities for the population they serve, as well as home visits and meal delivery.
Currently, with many seniors not able to receive many, if any, visitors, Smith is working on gearing the Aging With Purpose operations to fit the circumstances. They are still able to deliver food to seniors through their Meals on Wheels program, despite the challenge of having to reduce contact, and they also continue to work with the Second Harvest Food Bank to provide groceries.
They are also stretching to find ways to keep the aging population they serve socially connected in whatever way they can – through phone calls, book donations, amplifying access to technology, distributing activities that can be distributed in care packages, and initiating activities that can be led online.
“In one study, social isolation was said to have the impact of smoking 15 cigarettes a day, as far as increased morbidity through chances of heart disease and stroke. And caregivers as well as those they serve can be very socially isolated. So, we try to implement anything we can to bring them more purpose and joy,” said Smith.
For Aging With Purpose, that also includes an ongoing oral living history program where a writer documents the clients’ lives through interviews.
Smith is one of many UNCG gerontology students addressing social isolation.
Master’s student Rachel Blevins is working with Twin Lakes Retirement Community in Burlington to create a YouTube channel to engage seniors with memory therapy activities. She is also creating “memory kits” that can be used with an online interaction component, but can also be used by those without the internet.
Research in practice
Another current master’s student, Greta Scalco, works as an RN in a hospital, in a unit where the average age of patients is 60 years old, and she also works in an assisted living facility. With the hospital closed to visitors and the other facility with very limited visitation, she sees the psychological burden for patients and residents and their families, especially when family visits are prohibited to prevent the spread of virus.
“Many people in the hospital are in serious condition, and the fact that they do not see familiar faces for days makes their general condition even worse. This is also true for isolated older adults in nursing facilities,” says Scalco. “There are a lot of studies done about the positive effects of aromatherapy and music, and those can be accessible to all older adults, regardless of their financial situation.”
This fall, under the direction of Dr. Rebecca Adams, Scalco will complete a synthesis of the research literature on alternative therapies, such as aromatherapy and music, to reduce depression in institutionalized older adults, and she intends to use her knowledge to help her in her work with older adults.
Gerontology research community
Both Eifert and Adams, who coordinates the undergraduate minor in gerontology, are working on further developing UNCG coursework that touches on issues brought up by the pandemic – such as quality of life, ageism, public health, administration at assisted living facilities, and intersections between age and race.
Adams, an expert on friendship among older adults, will incorporate material about the isolation of older adults during COVID-19 into a course called “Envisioning Your Ideal Old Age.”
She asserts that it is important to remember that although older adults are at greater risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, people of all ages can be infected by the virus and affected by it socially and emotionally.
“Expressing concern for older adults while also avoiding ageism can be challenging,” she says.
As another example, Adams points out that while some older adults may require assistance with technology, most have internet access and there are other factors besides advanced age that cause people to be technologically isolated, such as low income and rural residence.
UNCG’s GROWTH (Gerontology Research, Outreach, Workforce development, & Teaching Hub) seeks to address the complexity of these issues as it keeps faculty, staff, community partners, students, and former students connected through Facebook and frequent discussions and workshops, all of which will be conducted virtually this year.
The hub includes many alumni who are working on the frontlines of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the loneliness crisis for older adults, as well as a growing list of faculty affiliates and community partners, such as the AARP, the Triad Retirement Living Association, and Guilford Senior Services. Together, they work toward the goal of promoting the needs of aging demographics within public discourse and within higher education, as well as an understanding of how to view the aging population as an integral part of a whole and complete society.
Their efforts, within the pandemic era, are part of UNCG’s essential message.
“We are ALL, no matter what our age, in this together,” confirms Adams.
Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by Susan Kirby-Smith and Martin W. Kane, University Communications, and courtesy of Melissa Smith, Rachel Blevins, Greta Scalco