CEAH helping older adults find fellowship online to address loneliness and isolation

Tom Meuser, along with other faculty and student volunteers, is hosting sessions to connect older adults online
Tom Meuser, along with other faculty and student volunteers, is hosting sessions to connect older adults online

The UNE Center for Excellence in Aging and Health (CEAH), led by Tom Meuser Ph.D., founding director, is bringing older adults together online in an effort to help them combat feelings of loneliness and isolation during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Peer Connection groups were recently featured in the Portland Press Herald's Maine Acts of Kidness section that is running during the pandemic.

“Isolation, particularly forced isolation, during a time when there is a lot of uncertainty, can be damaging to the emotional health of people at any age,” Meuser explained. “As we get older, we naturally see a shrinking of our social networks. Both the physical and mental health of older adults are at risk today.”

Meuser and Carly Woolard, graduate student in the School of Social Work, along with other faculty and student volunteers, are hosting online facilitated peer support and fellowship meetings for CEAH’s Legacy Scholars, a group of adults aged 55 and older who are participating as subjects in research studies on health and wellness in aging.

“Tom really took the initiative to try to problem solve,” stated Woolard. “He was looking for ways to still remain connected to the Legacy Scholars because his end goal is to decrease loneliness and increase connection.”

The one-hour peer gatherings are an opportunity for older adults to share their feelings, express frustrations, suggest activities, and offer mutual support for each other.

Meuser says many participants are confronting their own aging during this crisis. End of life planning is also emerging as a topic for individuals and families.

“Older adults are at ground zero for COVID-19,” Meuser stated. “If you are over 65, you are in the high-risk group. Participants said people are treating them differently. It's really threatening to them on an existential level. It's threatening to one's identity. These concerns are worth talking about.”

“As grateful as they seem to be for courtesies extended to them, such as special hours at the grocery store, they also expressed some anxiety and confusion by having to take on this label,” Woolard said. “They really don't feel old, but this situation is making them feel that way.”

Woolard says hosting these sessions is a way to continue her education after her internship at Spring Harbor Hospital was stopped because of COVID-19.

“I really wanted to make the most out of my last month and a half of being in graduate school by still engaging with people,” she explained. “At the end of the day, these people are also really impacting me in the most positive of ways and that's what makes this the best experience.”

Meuser says all of the participants in the first group found the session helpful.

“They have been feeling so alone and just wanted to talk about it with other people. So, that was validating for us to continue,” he said. “I'm now trying to identify volunteers with the right background within the UNE family to come in and serve as group facilitators. We would like to try to offer a few groups each week.”

Recent Master of Social Work graduate Elisabeth Corrales and Regi Robnett, associate director of CEAH, are helping with the sessions.

Meuser and his team are also putting together online sessions called Coffee and Conversations.

“You make the coffee and we will provide the conversation,” he commented.

Topics will range from practical to informative to fun.

“So, we have the peer connection sessions where older adults connect with each other and talk about what they're going through, and we will also have these other kinds of light presentations followed by question and answer sessions.”

Meuser says it is all aimed at keeping older adults connected and engaged during these difficult times.

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Carly Woolard, graduate student in the School of Social Work, hosted the first session
Carly Woolard, graduate student in the School of Social Work, hosted the first session

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