For Seniors, a Friendly Call Is the Best Medicine

A VIRTUAL VISITOR PROGRAM HELPED ELDERLY RESIDENTS AT THE MASONIC HOMES OF CALIFORNIA RIDE OUT THE PANDEMIC. NOW, IT’S HERE TO STAY.

Just over a year ago, as the Covid-19 crisis was first ballooning into an international pandemic, residents and staff at the Masonic Homes of California recognized that the virus wasn’t only a threat to their physical health. It was taking its toll on their psyche, too. For elderly residents, that meant being cut off from friends and family. For staff, it meant shouldering an enormous and stressful burden. Leaders at the senior care community recognized that in order to provide the kind of holistic services they are known for, it was imperative they address those needs. The result has been an important new partnership that exemplifies the Masonic Homes’ commitment to care.

Together with the Masonic Center for Youth and Families, a subsidiary of the Masonic Homes that provides a wide array of emotional wellness and therapeutic services for children and teens age 4 to 24, the two organizations launched a plan to bring the mental health expertise of MCYAF to bear on the Masonic Homes campus. Now, a year later, the program has been so successful that leaders expect to keep it going even after in-person visiting restrictions are entirely lifted.

Through the program, staff at the Masonic Homes provided Zoom-enabled computers and tablets to residents that they could use to connect with loved ones, while MCYAF made its team of counselors and therapists available for impromptu video calls—often as simple as a friendly hello and a chat. Even small, virtual connections like that play an important role in seniors’ overall mental and physical health—and having a direct line to a licensed counselor is doubly important for people of a generation for whom mental health care was often stigmatized.

Meanwhile, staff members at the Homes were able to speak with MCYAF counselors about managing stress and anxiety. What began as casual online check-ins soon developed into a robust program, featuring things like shared childhood memories, exchanges of family photos, and even online visits with pets. “It’s not therapy—it’s a friendly visit,” says Kimberly Rich, the executive director of MCYAF.

That need remains greater than ever: Even before the pandemic and subsequent shutdown—which saw nursing homes like MHC largely closed to visitors—one in five adults over 55 experience some type of mental health concern, according to the CDC’s Healthy Aging Program. And loneliness and social isolation can be enormous issues for older adults. Studies show they are associated with a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia among the elderly, and a 30 percent increased risk of stroke or heart disease.

Combatting loneliness, then, is an important health matter. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, seniors with access to high-quality social connections reported greater emotional resilience during the pandemic even than younger adults. By offering a friendly ear or sharing pictures of a favorite pet, counselors from MYCAF were able to help those at the Masonic Homes ride out the worst of the pandemic in a supportive, safe environment. And that’s a development that will outlive the Covid-19 crisis.

“We’re seeing a shift around the stigma associated with mental health services,” Rich says. “It’s normalized the idea that everybody needs emotional support when they’re going through a difficult time.”


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