SRU piloting a program with PA Department of Aging to help socially isolated older adults


Elderly woman in a care home

Recognizing that social isolation and loneliness are conditions that deeply affect older adults, Slippery Rock University and the Pennsylvania Department of Aging have piloted a program to help by connecting students with older adults in Butler and Mercer counties.

Dec. 21, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Social isolation and loneliness are conditions that have been perpetuated by the COVID-19 pandemic and safety measures that keep people at a distance from one another. These afflictions are particularly harmful for older adults, many of whom are living alone and encounter other factors such as loss of friends and family members, chronic illness and physical ailments. A new pilot program launched by the Pennsylvania Department of Aging in partnership with Slippery Rock University is addressing the issue for older adults in Butler and Mercer counties.

During the fall 2020 semester, nearly 100 SRU students in recreational therapy and gerontology classes completed service-learning projects that included interactions with older adults, either over the phone or virtually if the older adult had access to videoconferencing technology. The project is the first of its kind through a program coordinated by the PDA that provides real-world experiences for students by connecting them with more than 100 older adults through the Butler and Mercer County Area Agencies on Aging.

Betsey Kemeny


"It's a privilege for SRU and our students to be able to collaborate with the Department of Aging in an effort to serve our community's at-risk older adults," said Betsy Kemeny, associate professor of parks, conservation and recreational therapy. "This is a win-win for our students to have an opportunity to learn and for older adults to learn and benefit from one-on-one, virtual interactions with our students. I am thrilled that this project will support so many people who are socially isolated while also allowing our students the chance to apply and reflect on what they are learning in the virtual classroom about recreational therapy assessment and interventions for older adults."

Students from Kemeny's Recreational Therapy for Older Adults class participated in the program, as well as students from the Aging and the Older Person class taught by Adelle Williams, professor of public health and social work, department chair and coordinator of the gerontology program.

"SRU is committed to preparing students who have an interest in addressing the needs of older adults and providing services for this population," Williams said. "This program enables students to better serve the needs of older adults. It also enhances our students' awareness and understanding of the challenges and opportunities that older people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and functional abilities experience."

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, a quarter of all people ages 65 and older suffer from social isolation, which significantly increases a person's risk of premature death from all causes. These risks, which may rival those of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity, include a 50% increased risk of dementia, a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.

"The Department of Aging is pleased to have partnered with Slippery Rock University to kick off this program," said Robert Torres, Pennsylvania Secretary of Aging. "It's important for seniors to be engaged and connected to help prevent social isolation and the resulting adverse impacts. The program offered an opportunity for older adults to interact with the students and proved to be valuable for everyone involved. It also was a wonderful learning experience for us as a department. The pilot program not only helped us to discover how we can further support older Pennsylvanians, but to get feedback from the faculty and the students involved on what worked and what did not, and how we can improve on it moving forward."

The program started in September, with SRU students typically engaging twice a week with an older adult who is living at home. The students earned service-learning hours, gained skills in virtual assessment and implementing interventions. They participated in a variety of activities with their older adult, including recipe swapping, brain fitness, relaxation, games and sharing personal life stories.

"This service-learning project was very beneficial for both me and the participant," said Megan Hutchman, a senior recreational therapy major from East Liverpool, Ohio. "I learned how to build rapport and practice active listening skills, while also implementing several telehealth interventions that the participant said reduced his pain. I also learned about the many great experiences my participant had over his life and some more challenging or difficult experiences he went through. I was able to empathize and develop a relationship that fostered growth and purpose.

Student on the phone

   Megan Hutchman, an SRU
   senior recreational therapy
   major, talks on the phone
   with a participant in a
   program that helps older
   adults with social isolation.

"I am very fortunate to have been a part of such a great opportunity that my professor, SRU and the PDA provided to further develop the skills I need to be a recreational therapist."

Although the two SRU classes that participated are offered from separate departments, both classes are part of SRU's gerontology program, which is offered as a minor at SRU, and students beyond aspiring recreational therapists benefited.

"I am very grateful I was given this opportunity," said Maria Josselyn, a senior public health major from Irwin. "It was one of my favorite projects throughout my entire college career. This year has been hard on everyone and it was great to be able to be there for someone and for them to be there in return. I will cherish how we were able to share life experiences and overall create an inter-generational relationship."

"My older adult gave me advice that I will use for the rest of my life," said Bailie Fleming, a junior health care administration and management major from Monaca. "Sometimes I really feel like I am just going through my day and not really living. My older adult gave me my 'why' for years to come. This was such a great experience. I hope other students can continue this program."

SRU professors and PDA officials began discussing the pilot program after the PDA presented the idea to Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education in April 2020 to gauge interest from the 14 universities in the State System. According to the PDA, the increased risk of social isolation among older adults as a result of the pandemic put the program on the fast track, and the PDA is hoping to expand this program for the spring semester at other universities. The pilot program will continue at SRU in the spring 2021 semester with another group of students.

More information about the program is available on the PDA website. More information about SRU's recreational therapy and gerontology programs are available on the SRU website.

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