USD School of Health Sciences collaborates with national organizations to help older adults struggling with social isolation

VERMILLION, S.D. -- Students and faculty from the University of South Dakota School of Health Sciences are collaborating with The Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society and Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) to help older adults combat social isolation through AARP Foundation’s Connecting to Community pilot program.

“Social isolation is quite prevalent and debilitating in older adults,” explained Jarod T. Giger, Ph.D., M.S.W., L.C.S.W., assistant professor, USD Department of Social Work. “I think the model we are using in the Connecting to Community program could also be applied to other at-risk populations that suffer from social isolation, including older adult veterans and older adult caregivers. The possibilities are limitless.”

To prevent social isolation, which affects close to one-in-five older Americans, increasing social engagement among seniors is significant. The problem in the past was a lack of programs available for seniors to learn how to use social media. Now, with Connecting to Community, 11 USD Occupational Therapy students, one USD Social Work student and six older adult volunteers are working with older adults to teach them everything from how to use an iPad to posting photos on Facebook.

“Why not teach older adults to use the iPad? Why not work toward creating a better, more socially connected life for older adults?” Giger asked. “I have had some amazing conversations with our older adult volunteers and participants. One participant shared with me that she could not wait to learn how to Skype so that she could see her new grandchild.”

OATS, an organization that provides technology training services to seniors, wrote the curriculum that the volunteer instructors are using to teach the older adult participants. OATS also provided three days of training to the volunteer instructors prior to the start of the program and will continue to support them for the duration of the six-month project. The volunteer instructors will teach and train more than 50 older adult participants in the Sioux Falls area in 90 minute class sessions that are held twice per week. The older adult participants are also offered the opportunity to attend an open lab session to practice the skills that they learn in class.

“This program is a win-win for everyone,” stated Stacy Smallfield, Dr. O.T., M.S.O.T., O.T.R/L, associate professor, USD Department of Occupational Therapy. “The older adult participants get to learn how to build and maintain meaningful relationships using contemporary technology while the student volunteer instructors have the opportunity to hone their skills in teaching and developing therapeutic rapport with the older adult population.”

Giger also pointed out that the Good Samaritan Society has been very supportive of and engaged with the Departments of Social Work and Occupational Therapy along with the research within the School of Health Sciences to make the Connecting to Community program a success.

“We are very fortunate to collaborate with the Good Samaritan Society,” added Giger. “Working with the Good Samaritan Society is akin to working in an idea factory. I anticipate that as we move forward and begin our analysis of the Connecting to Community program, future larger scale ideas will emerge.”

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Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 206 undergraduate and 71 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 17:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 17 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.

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