Area Seniors Receiving Friendly Check-Ins from UHD Students
Regular Phone Calls Part of ‘Adopt-A-Grandparent’ Program
By Mike Emery
A little conversation goes a long way for those separated from their families. This is even more true for senior populations who have been in isolation during the ongoing pandemic.
Leave it to the students at the University of Houston-Downtown to make a difference in the lives of others by simply picking up the phone and saying “Hello.”
This semester, UHD’s Adopt-a-Grandparent program continues to connect students with area seniors through regular phone call check-ins. Led by the UHD College of Public Service’s Collaboratory for Aging Resources & Education (CARE), students are checking on seniors, asking how they’re doing, how they’re seeing world these days and if they need anything.
CARE is guided by its director Tammy Mermelstein, a seasoned social work professional and UHD Social Work Lecturer Dr. Angela Goins.
Seniors who opt into this program are identified by local organizations and agencies, including Americorps Seniors, Houston Council of the Blind, Lone Star Living, Montrose Center SPRY Program, Virtually Impaired Advocates, YMCA of Greater Houston Senior Program and YMCA Houston Centers for Senior Life & Meals on Wheels.
The program, said Mermelstein, is especially critical in the Houston area. Recent data collected by CARE indicated that 1 in 7 Harris County residents are 60 or older.
“Loneliness kills,” she said. “People who are lonely have a similar risk of dying as someone who smokes 15 cigarettes a day. It is linked to a wide range of poor physical and mental health outcomes. But the flipside is also true. When an older adult has a sense of purpose, it is like discovering the fountain of youth. Mortality rates decrease, physical and mental health improve. The participating UHD students helped remind the older participants that they are valuable parts of society and that they have something to share with the world.”
The relationships forged during these conversations are invaluable to the well-being of both the students and the seniors they are calling. This semester, even more students will be available to reach out to older Houstonians thanks to a $20,000 grant from healthcare organization WellMed.
The grant, said Goins, has truly supported CARE’s efforts to increase the number of Adopt a Grandparent participants. The additional funding has enhanced CARE’s infrastructure to assist in coordinating students who are ready to lend an ear and a voice to those seniors needing to hear from someone.
These phone conversations are rewarding to all involved, Goins said. Seniors receive the necessary socialization to remain optimistic, alert and engaged during the ongoing pandemic, a period that may otherwise seem bleak.
Students too benefit from the experience of working with older adults. The training received before actually making these phone calls … not to mention the actual calls … are excellent preparation for aspiring social workers seeking careers working with geriatric clients.
“Many students haven’t been exposed to older adults or might be intimidated by the thought of interacting with people who are significantly older than they are,” Goins said. “I remember one student indicated that she would have never worked with seniors … but after completing this project in May, she now wants to serve geriatric communities.”
The ultimate reward for both participating students and seniors is the bond that develops during the course of these regular phone calls. Goins said that some of the relationships between students and their designated “Grandparents” continues long after the project has concluded, or students graduate.
One student, she said, was connected to a Spanish-speaking husband and wife. After the student’s required hours for Adopt a Grandparent came to a close, she continued her friendship with the couple and continues to call them.
Another intergenerational bonding moment came when a senior who was raising a teenage grandchild found commonality with a student who was a parent to a teenager.
One senior participant offered this assessment of their interactions with students:
“I think we got a lot out of each other. I had something to offer because of my wisdom. They had something to offer because of their age.”
Student Gladys Brew agreed that the intergenerational conversations offered many learning moments and demonstrated how much she had in common with her “adopted grandparent.”
“My experience working with the older adult population was very wonderful,” Brew said. “In the beginning I was very nervous. I thought it would be a hard task because I wouldn’t be able to relate to an older adult. Well, I ended up proving myself wrong! Getting to know an older adult was honestly, so fun and refreshing. I had so much in common with the person I called, and we were able to converse about so many different topics. Being able to learn things and receive life lessons from an older adult was something I now realize I needed! This has been great opportunity, and I would definitely do it again!”
Participants in Adopt a Grandparent originally included primarily Social Work students, but WellMed’s support has allowed the program to take on students seeking service-learning hours and experience from other disciplines as well. Dr. Kimberly Gleason, Lecturer in the Marilyn Davies College of Business, is currently overseeing students who are contributing their time and energies to this program.
“The program helps students realize that a fully rounded student goes beyond their academic career creating an opportunity to develop their professional skills such as critical thinking, writing reflection papers, and communication. Ultimately, Adopt a Grandparent gives students a sense of purpose and the fulfilling feeling of giving back, contributing to society, and making a real, lasting difference in people’s lives,” Gleason said.
CARE is based within the College of Public Service’s Center for Center for Public Service & Community Research and focuses exclusively on addressing topics and issues affecting senior communities. Among the other projects undertaken by Goins, Mermelstein and others involved with CARE, is generating the report “The State of Harris County’s Older Adults.”
“It is heartwarming to hear students' reactions to this project,” Mermelstein said. “UHD students are not only helping older adults, but they are also having their eyes opened to the beauty of intergenerational relationships.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.