The Square
News and perspectives from Covia.

When Pat Lau, Activities Coordinator for Webster House in Palo Alto, first created the Healthy Connections program in 2016, she had no idea the kind of impact it would eventually have.

“I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just have a little volunteer program. They can work with the residents, meet them, talk to them,’” she says. “But it evolved into so much more.”

Now in its third year, Healthy Connections partners with Stanford University’s Office of Undergraduate Advising to provide pre-med students with a setting to gain clinical experience as well as giving residents in the Health Center the personal connections that studies continue to show are beneficial to people’s health and well-being.

Webster House and its affiliated Health Center are located just a mile away from Stanford University. With physicians from Stanford and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation making rounds at the Health Center daily, the program offers valuable experience for students interested in exploring the medical field.

In addition, the program exposes pre-med students to the need for, and importance of, geriatrics as a medical specialty. According to the American Geriatric Society, 20,000 geriatricians are required to keep up with the need right now, and that need will only grow as the population ages. There are currently fewer than 7,300 certified geriatricians practicing nationwide.

Volunteers for the Healthy Connection program must spend a minimum of three hours each week with the residents and at least 100 clinical hours at the Health Center. “Most of the students, though, work well beyond the hundred hours and some have gone on to two hundred hours,” according to Lau.

Students must be 18 years old, pass a criminal background check, be screened for tuberculosis, and attend an in-depth orientation. “There’s a number of regulations and things they need to know about if they’re going to be in a health care setting and working with a vulnerable population such as older adults,” Lau explains, including the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), patient rights, elder abuse, infection control, and safety procedures.

So far, 12 students have participated in the program. Four of the 12 students who have been through the program have been accepted to medical school.

“Everyone seemed to benefit,” Lau says. “The student was exposed to a clinical environment, but most of all, there was a very strong, caring, and reliable relationship.”

Healthy Connections recently received a Sereno Group 1% For Good grant from the Palo Alto office. 1% for Good provides grants to local organizations that are active in improving our communities. Sereno Group Palo Alto will be supporting Healthy Connections from July through September 2018.

Brian Chancellor from the Sereno Group says, ““We were intrigued and touched by the inter-generational experience between the students and the residents. It’s exciting to support them all in their care and cultivation of such a relationship when it is so greatly needed and appreciated.”

As the new school year begins at Stanford, students can anticipate another benefit of participating in the Healthy Connections program: Dr. Peter Pompei, a professor at the Stanford Medical School, general internist and geriatrician with 20 years of clinical experience, will serve as the program’s medical director, providing mentorship and support for the students.

But it’s the relationships built between the residents and students that most impresses Lau. “These students really help support these older adults. They improve the quality of their lives. And for me, I can’t tell you what I feel when I see some of these individuals smile.”

For more information on the Healthy Connections program, please contact Pat Lau at plau@covia.org.

The following is a summary of the workshop presented at the Aging in America conference by Amber Carroll and Katie Wade. Amber Carroll is Director and Katie Wade is Associate Director of Well Connected (formerly known as Senior Center Without Walls).

Setting the stage for their presentation, Well Connected Associate Director Katie Wade asked workshop participants to close their eyes and imagine someone they have a strong connection with. Around the room, she saw faces light up as people reflected on the warmth and happiness that comes from those relationships.

This simple exercise illustrated the importance of connection in people’s lives that Katie Wade and Director Amber Carroll have both seen in their work with Well Connected (formerly known as Senior Center Without Walls). “This week, would it be an exaggeration to say that you’ve heard the word ‘loneliness’ and ‘social isolation’ like a billion times?” Carroll noted. “Loneliness and social isolation have been going on since the beginning of time, but folks are starting to talk about it.”

Studies have only recently begun to calculate the health impact of loneliness and social isolation. Some studies have found that loneliness has the same negative effect on health as smoking 15 cigarettes or drinking 6 alcoholic beverages a day. Wade points out, “When I go to my yearly physical, I’m asked to fill out something about how often I drink or if I’ve ever been a smoker. But very rarely am I asked if I’m feeling lonely or if I’m feeling connected. But we know it has the same physical impact.”

Carroll notes, “This is why everyone is talking about it now. We’re seeing these real health connections to loneliness, and realizing that loneliness costs buckets of money.”

Well Connected addresses the issue of loneliness through the mutual support and reciprocal relationships provided by participants, many of whom also become group facilitators. Rather than trying to fix the problem for others, Well Connected emphasizes that participants are able to help one another.  “The model of giving and receiving is what makes our program unique,” says Wade.

As an example, Wade spoke of Lynnie, whose photo is featured above. Lynnie has been a participant and facilitator for Well Connected for over a decade, facilitating at least 100 groups. After Lynnie’s recent diagnosis, she decided to facilitate a group called “Living Through Dying” for the upcoming Well Connected session, which begins April 9.

As a phone based program, Well Connected also is very accessible for people with vision loss. Along with large-print catalogs, information is available in braille and in audio form. This year, Well Connected is hosting the second National Conversation on Aging and Vision Loss, presented by the American Foundation for the Blind, on May 4th.

Well Connected helps break down barriers and bring together diverse populations. Carroll explains, “There can be somebody who’s in their SRO in the Tenderloin here in San Francisco participating with someone in New York who’s in their penthouse Central Park home, connecting around a central interest in a topic. You just don’t see that in a senior center that’s geographically bound in a particular neighborhood.”

Wade adds, “When I came to the program, it really challenged some of the biases that I had. For example, I knew Gloria, a participant, maybe for three months on the phone before she mentioned she was in a wheelchair. I had pictured her as this 20-year-old blonde. It really challenged the stereotypes that I hold.”

Unlike many other senior programs or communities, Well Connected groups take place seven days a week, giving seniors activities to participate in over the weekend. One of its long-running groups, Gratitude, has just celebrated its 10th anniversary, meeting every day at 9:00 am and expanding to a second group at noon. Wade shares, “We have developed a culture of gratitude in part because we do this every day, twice a day, seven days a week.”

“This has been an amazing job,” Wade adds. “I often think, ‘Am I getting to do this and being paid for this?’ To join the calls, to work with the volunteers, to plan the programs. But also, I don’t think a day goes by where we don’t get a positive report from someone saying, ‘Here’s how this has impacted me.’ And some of the ones that really stick with me are people who were feeling pretty serious depression and thoughts of suicide when they came to us. We’re not here as a therapeutic intervention but we know that social connection does address those issues. We’ve had people say, ‘I’d do anything for Well Connected because this program saved my life.’”

To download the most recent Well Connected catalog, click here. To register for the Spring session, which runs from April 9-July 8, call Well Connected at 877-797-7299. You can also visit their page on the Covia site.