PAU Students Provide Essential Mental Health Services to Seniors in Local Retirement Communities

Thursday, September 17, 2020
As COVID-19 takes its toll on the mental health of seniors living in isolation in retirement communities, a team of Palo Alto University psychology students are providing essential mental health services to older adults residing in independent living facilities in Daly City, Portola Valley, and Palo Alto. In doing so, the team of budding psychologists have learned to sharpen their digital mental health skills and gain valuable clinical experience while overcoming the language barriers and technology challenges of communicating with the residents. As a result, more than 240 older adults have had direct access to mental health services through either group presentations via ZOOM or one-on-one counseling via the PAU e-clinic.
“Many residents are very isolated and may be experiencing loneliness, low mood and anxiety,” said Rowena Gomez, a psychology professor who advises Palo Alto University’s Student Association of Gerontological Enrichment (SAGE). In April when Channing House in Palo Alto and Sequoia Living at Portola Valley first inquired about the possibility of partnering with PAU, Gomez knew this would be an ideal endeavor for the SAGE students to undertake. SAGE’s president, Megan Frank, a third-year Clinical Psychology Ph.D. student and her team of five are now working with the residents at Channing House, Sequoia Living, and Hillcrest Gardens in Daly City.
Megan Frank says the students surveyed the residents to learn more about the type of support they were seeking. While most of the Channing House and Sequoia Living residents speak English and have access to video conferencing, the Hillcrest Garden community is a diverse population of mono-lingual speakers of Spanish, Mandarin and Tagalog and primarily have access to audio communications. SAGE students quickly adapted by having the surveys translated in several languages for the Hillcrest Garden residents and provided one presentation in Spanish.  Survey results for both groups identified several areas of interest; from reducing anxiety to mood improvement and problems with sleeping. Some residents were referred to PAU’s e-Clinic where they could receive one-on-one counseling. The remaining are participating in group presentations via ZOOM or telephone. Tom Barrett, the resident services coordinator at Hillcrest Gardens said that many of his residents sought out help with “grieving” because several longtime dwellers had recently passed away and it was difficult for the community to grieve together during this prolonged isolation period. “They missed their fellow residents and needed help in grieving their loss,” said Barrett.
Megan Frank noted that “the Covid-19 pandemic erased so many of the plans I had for the academic year, especially in terms of receiving necessary clinical experience. However, serving as the president of SAGE has presented  me with new opportunities to work with older adults, provide clinical counselling and make a difference in their lives as they face the challenges of isolation.”
“The overall benefit to the residents at Channing House is that both the residents and the staff have more resources to lean on,” says social worker Elizabeth Schmidt who coordinates the program with SAGE, “It has been a very long period of isolation with no visitors. They now have a forum in which to discuss their mental well-being,” said Schmidt. “Both the staff and the residents are very grateful to these Palo Alto University students. We’ve seen people participate in the discussions who typically don’t attend these group activities.  It gives our community peace of mind.”
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