One of the overlooked symptoms of the COVID-19 pandemic is an increasingly dire mental health crisis among vulnerable older adults. Fueled by measures to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, social distancing has exasperated isolation and, hence, anxiety and depression.
“We know that older adults are disproportionately affected by this crisis because they are already prone to isolation,” said Dr. Blanca Vacaflor, a geriatric psychiatry resident at the Jewish General Hospital (JGH). “Moreover, they are at the highest risk of mortality from COVID-19. With these factors in mind, we initiated a unique clinical trial to help alleviate the stress on this population.”
Under the direction of Dr. Syeda Bukhari, Postdoctoral Fellow, and Dr. Soham Rej, Geriatric Psychiatrist at the JGH and a researcher at the Lady Davis Institute, the Telehealth Intervention Program for Isolated Older Adults (TIP-OA) has been introduced. Given that it encompasses the largest number of seniors in the province, the CIUSSS - West Central Montreal is the ideal venue for a data-driven assessment of new methods for delivering services to these individuals.
Clients who are referred to TIP-OA will receive supportive weekly telephone calls from volunteers, who provide a comforting ear and an encouraging voice. The volunteers, many of whom have been recruited through the JGH Foundation, are not psychiatric professionals, nor is it their function to offer clinical advice. Their role is to relieve the client’s loneliness with a friendly talk, and to help determine if their client’s basic needs are met, such as access to medicine, food, and healthcare.
“Prior to the pandemic, vulnerable older adults could, at least, get out to exercise, shop, participate in community events, but now they are told to self-isolate, cut off from caregivers and loved ones, to safeguard their physical health,” points out Dr. Vacaflor. “So what of their mental health? This is where our volunteer outreach can be, we believe, of service. Since the threat to older adults from the virus won’t diminish in the near future, we anticipate that TIP-OA will continue after the pandemic subsides.”
Currently, participation will be through clinician referrals from throughout the CIUSSS: e.g. the COVID+ Units, other JGH inpatient units, Long Term Care facilities (RIs, CHSLDs, and Private Residences), CLSCs. However, the plan is to expand the project to allow for self-referral by anyone who feels that they could benefit, and potentially in other parts Montreal. Volunteers are carefully paired with clients based upon their aptitude and experience so that more sensitive cases are assigned to those who are best equipped to assist. The program aim to reach 1000+ older adults, and more if funding increases.
“The objective is to provide a sense of connection that goes beyond clinical care,” said Dr. Vacaflor. “It is crucial for their well-being and quality of life that these older adults realize that they are not alone and that there is a community interested in their welfare.”
The JGH Division of Geriatric Psychiatry is also planning to pilot therapy for groups of up to a dozen participants using Zoom video-conferencing. Groups would be delivered by a clinician and adapted from in-person versions of evidence-based interventions, including: mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, life skills groups, problem solving therapy and/or supportive psychosocial groups, amongst other options. The expectation is that tele-health interventions will result in expanded access to mental health services above and beyond the demands of the current pandemic.
JGH Mindstrong is fundraising – please donate to help provide mental health programs like TIP-OA telehealth to more isolated older adults and others during COVID!
TIP-OA is currently accepting referrals by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org