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Phone pals? For UC Irvine med and nursing students, and older people dodging the virus, a call can be a lifeline

Once she starts talking, Geraldine Buchanan admits, she can keep right on going.

About to turn 91 on Friday, Buchanan, for now, is a prisoner of the pandemic, stuck inside her Westminster home in an effort to stay safe from the spread of coronavirus. Talking on the phone is an escape.

Buchanan’s loquaciousness is OK with Ryan Batten, a 22-year old UC Irvine nursing student who calls her at least once a week. Batten, set to graduate in June, is a good listener, something that figures to serve him well in his chosen profession.

“I’m kind of a talkative person,” said Batten. “But I really feel like what I am doing is active listening.”

The old lady and the young man were strangers until early April, when they became phone pals. And while they might seem like an odd couple, they are among dozens of inter-generational telephonic matches made over the past few months that pair 20-something medical and nursing students at UCI with senior citizens in Orange County via a program for older adults who are isolated out of precaution.



The phone connections are the heart of ASSIST, an acronym that stands for Assisting & Supporting Socially Isolated Seniors through Telephoning. The program launched in March, when the statewide public health lockdown kicked in and older people, more vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19, had to sequester at home.

So far, the program has led to about 25 matches, with the idea that each can serve the dual purpose of being a welfare check and a check against loneliness. Administrators who oversee the federally funded program plan to keep it going for as long as seniors and future health workers sign up to participate.

Both parties, organizers say, get something out of the calls.

For the seniors, the call means two things: A regular check on their health status, and a human connection during a potentially isolating moment.

For the future doctors and nurses, the calls can help develop a bedside manner — and an ability to listen — that figure to serve them well in their careers. Given the unprecedented graying of California, where the number of people 65 and older is projected to nearly double by the end of the decade, most doctors and nurses can expect to work with a lot of older patients, no matter their specialty.

Program administrators hope the calls prompt some students to consider geriatrics as a career path. Given the expected demographic shift, there’s a shortage, in fact, of geriatrics students, said Dr. Lisa Gibbs, medical director of UCI Health’s SeniorHealth Center in Orange and chief of UCI’s Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology.

“There is a desperate need.”

Personal touch

At UCI, all third-year medical students must do a geriatric rotation. Ariana Naaseh, 25, was at that point in her studies, assigned to the Veterans Affairs medical facility in Long Beach, when she signed up for ASSIST. She went on to help recruit many of the 70 or so students who have volunteered.

Her 30-minute commute from Orange County to Long Beach gave her time to call the 65-year-old man who became her second phone buddy. He is near in age to her father. Besides discussing his family and activities he was involved in pre lockdown (a lot of volunteering, he said) she also asks about his experiences with his doctors at the SeniorHealth Center.

In turn, he offers watchful words for her.

“He always ends every conversation telling me to study hard, sleep well and eat well.”

But the ASSIST program also has given Naaseh firsthand understanding about the tragedy of the pandemic. Her first match, a 97-year-old woman, died from complications of COVID-19 three weeks after they met on the phone. The woman was hard of hearing, which made the phone chats  difficult, so they exchanged letters instead. Naaseh learned of the woman’s death in a letter from her son.

“He mentioned how meaningful the relationship was to her,” said Naaseh, who is considering oncology as a specialty. “He talked about how his mom said she had this medical student at UCI who was checking in on her.”

Naaseh, whose grandparents live in Iran, where most of her family is, says the program has made it easier for her to talk with older patients. She’s also found herself spending more time after her rounds at the VA hospital, visiting patients’ rooms to talk about their lives.

“I’m not sure I would have felt comfortable making so much small talk with them if not for this program,” she said.

But Naaseh added that chit-chat can lead to more significant patient care.

“Knowing more about (patients) can make you more passionate in advocating for them to get certain treatments, or to look up whether X,Y or Z is going on. It feels a lot more personal.”

As part of the ASSIST program, students undergo some initial training and then make the first call.

Some seniors hear about ASSIST through organizations such as Meals on Wheels Orange County and Front Porch Assisted Living Communities. Others are patients at UCI Health or residents of nursing homes where UCI physicians provide care.

Once signed into the program and paired up with a student, the seniors can opt in to be contacted daily, weekly, or every other week. Most are getting called a couple of times a week.

One key question for the seniors: Do they have regular communication with loved ones or any other contact with the outside world, such as in-home care providers? The calls can last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. The first call from the students is scripted, with the intention of assessing the senior’s needs, but after that the conversation flows freely.

“They talk about a variety of things: Their past professions, their loved ones, what they do to keep themselves busy,” said Neika Saville, project director for UCI’s Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program, who maintains a log on what the seniors talk about. Or, she added, they “reminisce on their lives and families, chat about their current situation, ask students about their lives.”

Most of the seniors have some regular communication with family. But they are restricted in who they might actually see and how they interact with that person when they do meet face-to-face.

“They’re still pretty isolated,” Saville said of the seniors in the ASSIST program.

“They are not going out.”

Never too busy

Buchanan said it’s been 14 weeks since she left her Westminster house, the place where she and her late husband raised their four children and where she’s lived for 57 years. Before the pandemic she was a church regular, and she misses going out to get her hair done.

She hears from family members (she also has nine grandchildren and five great-grandkids, including a 9-month-old) who call or stop by occasionally, but they keep their distance. She also sees volunteers from Meals on Wheels, who drop off food at her door while wearing masks and gloves.

But her in-home care provider has not been able to visit.

Lately, Buchanan’s kept busy by quilting.

“I don’t know what day it is because they are all the same,” Buchanan says, laughing.

In relaying her background, Buchanan talks about growing up on a farm in Wisconsin, her courtship with her late husband, who tired of working as a lineman in the cold winters and moved west to become a longshoreman. She talks about how they bought their home, her children’s lives, and the health issues she’s dealt with. And, oh yeah, she’ll mention how her husband is a distant relative of the nation’s 15th president, William Buchanan.

These are the kinds of things she’s shared with Batten during their calls, in addition to asking about his life. She appreciates the calls, she said, “because I know he’s a busy guy.”

The program has become a requirement at UC Irvine’s geriatric nursing course.

About to graduate later this month, Batten is helping out as a nursing assistant in the intensive care unit at Hoag Hospital in Irvine and hopes to stay on as a registered nurse once he gets his license. His phone conversations with Buchanan have given Batten, who also wrote a research paper on the Great Influenza of 1918, a broader perspective on the coronavirus pandemic.

“As someone who is young and yet to begin a career, it’s often hard to remember there are people who lived through World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and other events in history that are (not real) to me … Maybe the pandemic isn’t as terribly daunting.”

Buchanan said she’s up for continuing as phone pals, even after she can go back out.

“I still have a lot to tell. If he wants to keep calling, that’s fine. If he doesn’t, that’s fine too. I’ve enjoyed the time we’ve had.”

Find out more

Seniors interested in being paired with a UCI student can contact the ASSIST program at 714-497-0315. All students speak English and some also speak Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese or Mandarin Chinese.

Source: Orange County Register

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