Stay Connected is one of the silver linings of the pandemic – a program using phone calls to more effectively reach out to isolated seniors.

“We are using evidence-based depression- and stress-management strategies in a way that can be delivered by any staff person working with older adults in the community,” said Patrick Raue, professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Raue is leading the program’s rollout to senior centers and public housing facilities in Washington. 

The strategies in Stay Connected are useful for anyone who feels isolated or anxious. Rather than a phone call that asks an open-ended question like, “How are you?” the program proactively addresses older adults’ urgent concerns and teaches people techniques to feel connected to others and to manage negative emotions. 

Nanda Tewari, senior services coordinator with the India Association of Western Washington, heard about the program through the Aging and Disability Services and was eager to get involved. She keeps tabs on about 50 seniors. Days after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, in-person activities such as yoga, "Chai and Chat" went online-only, and welfare checks became urgent concerns.

“We were already doing calls to seniors, so now we have more structure to the calls,” Tewari said. “We try to keep the calls more focused. We are guiding them to something more concrete rather than having a random conversation.”

The callers ask about urgent problems and concerns, and offer guidance with addressing these issues. Seniors are put in the driver seat to create plans to help themselves, including scheduling pleasure activities such as a Zoom call with a loved one or pursuing a hobby. Someone is accountable to follow up and ensure the senior is following through and getting support.

The callers also assess the recipient for stress, loneliness, and signs of depression and offer resources to manage isolation, stress and anxiety. These self-management tools support people to engage or re-engage in activities they find rewarding and which can be done safely despite COVID-19.

“The Stay Connected program helps older adults restructure their day and add self-care and mood boosters,” Raue said. 

Staff who administer the program are trained by, and receive ongoing support from, psychologists and other clinicians at the UW ALACRITY Center.  So far, staff members at 20 aging service centers have been trained in the program.

The program has multiple funding sources. It was initially funded through a grant from the Archstone Foundation in California. UW’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences provided funding for partnerships with four Seattle public housing facilities. The National Institute of Mental Health awarded the ALACRITY Center funding to extend this work in light of the pandemic. 

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