Reading a research paper, McGill psychology PhD candidate Sivaniya Subramaniapillai learned that lack of social contact is among the risk factors that account for 40 per cent of dementia diagnoses.
“It just goes to show the importance of socialization and making sure you don’t feel lonely, that you feel connected to other people and how that contributes to a healthy lifestyle,” she noted.
Memory and healthy aging being her areas of specialty, the grad student decided to launch an effort to ease the pandemic-induced loneliness, isolation and anxiety of some older adults in Quebec and Ontario.
Subramaniapillai enlisted three other students – Lauren Bechard, Emma Conway and Danielle D’Amico, all PhD psychology students at universities in Ontario – for the Wisdom Exchange Project, which will roll out in January. Designed to identify interested isolated seniors and connect them with grad students and post-doctoral fellows to chat about their interests, the project is especially urgent given the COVID-19 shelter-in-place directives.
The four students have just finalized a questionnaire for the students and post-docs to help pair them with older adults based on preferences, including culture, interests and hobbies. They also enlisted a nurse practitioner specializing in elder care at the Jewish General Hospital and an assistant professor at the University of Montreal to develop the program that maximizes authentic intergenerational friendships.
Reaching candidates a challenge
The dilemma is how to reach prospective participants. Not all seniors have a Twitter, Instagram or Facebook account – or even a laptop, among the factors that contribute to isolation in the first place – so contacting interested candidates is a logistical challenge.
“We’re hoping to advertise though social media, but also through other avenues,” said Subramaniapillai. “We think older adults might read newspapers more, so we’re looking there also. But we’re just a few grad students with limited resources, so we’re looking around, trying to optimize our connections and making sure that people forward the information to anyone interested. They might know someone who might be lonely and socially isolated who find this program interesting.”
The team members have reached out to potential partners like Meals on Wheels and the Alzheimer Society of Toronto, which can easily and efficiently relay information about the project to individuals and other organizations. Anyone looking for more information – whether students wishing to participate, academics or doctors who may have referrals, or seniors wishing to participate – are asked to write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Students will be trained to teach older adults how to use web video-sharing platforms like Zoom and Facetime.
Seminars on healthy aging
Subramaniapillai, who is in the fifth year of her program and has worked at the Brain Imaging Centre of the Douglas Hospital Institute, said that a secondary goal of the project is “to provide information seminars on healthy aging and healthy living. We hope to invite expert researchers in this field to give knowledge transmission seminars to participants and to provide another platform to engage more intellectually on these topics. Participants can ask questions and researchers can speak directly to members of the community.”
“My research focuses on healthy brain aging trajectories and factors that contribute to healthy aging. I’m very much interested in how sex and gender contribute to differences in aging trajectories, but also other important factors that accumulate through a lifespan… such as levels of physical activity, education and social interaction.”
The Wisdom Exchange Project has already been contacted by the director of a theatre troupe of older adults in Ontario who have expressed interest. COVID guidelines halted their acting program, but they are considering a virtual theatre performance as well as a dialogue with experts through Zoom.
“It’s great to have people contact us and tell us how they envision a successful program,” said Subramaniapillai. “We’re trying our best to integrate their feedback and make it successful and exciting for everyone.”