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BE WITH: Training Volunteers to Support At-Risk Older Adults

September 1, 2021

A guest blog post for Suicide Prevention Month.

Contributors: Laura Shannonhouse, Afroze Shaikh, Matthew Fullen, Hannah Cowart, Jordan Westcott, and Brittany Jones

Since 2017, ACL’s Administration on Aging has funded “Innovations in Nutrition” grants to support the testing and documentation of innovative and promising practices in order to enhance the quality, effectiveness, and outcomes of the nutrition programs funded through the Older Americans Act. The nutrition programs have a three-pronged purpose: reduce food insecurity, hunger, and malnutrition; enhance socialization; and promote the health and well-being of older adults.

In this guest blog to kick off Suicide Prevention Month, Innovations in Nutrition grantees describe how one project is helping build capacity within the aging network to help address social isolation and loneliness and prevent suicide amongst older adults.

Older adults are at risk for social isolation and loneliness, which can lead to poor physical and mental health outcomes, including elevated risk of dementia, hopelessness, anxiety, and increased morbidity. These factors have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the recent work of one ACL grantee shows one of the ways ACL’s networks can help combat the feelings of social isolation, loneliness, and elevated suicidality often experienced by older adults.

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. 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 to one of two training programs:

  • BE 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.
  • BE WITH 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. 

Following the training, each volunteer engages in weekly “warm calling” to eight older adults through the FriendlyBuzz automated phone system, which connects volunteers with participants while protecting the privacy of users. The 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.

After each call, the older adult calls our research team to complete a battery of validated measures of their experience. In addition, volunteers attend weekly meetings, organized and held by our research team leads, to address any questions or needs, including concerns that may need to be reported back to case managers (i.e. food services, access, cleanliness).

This project has three 8-week waves, which together will include 3,840 warm calls by 60 trained nutrition services volunteers. The first wave launched in late May and ended in July. During this time, volunteers completed approximately 1,040 warm calls to older adult participants and supported participants through life threatening medical experiences, the loss of a beloved spouse, and chronic life stressors that can have a disproportionate impact on an already isolated population. Volunteers also completed numerous suicide interventions.

These calls have been quite touching for the research team -- many had us in tears – and participants have reported how much they enjoyed spending time on the phone with our volunteers.

“You have no idea the blessing,” one participant said 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.

With ACL’s investment in this program, we are using our novel intervention to determine how to best support at-risk older adults who are disproportionately affected by SILES. 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.

Already, we are learning that a small dose of sincere connection can promote life. and we are hopeful to continue providing meaningful moments and increasing awareness of the need for connection in the ASN.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, talk to someone now. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 via chat or phone: 800-273-8255.

Last modified on 05/17/2023

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