11:35 AM

UHD Social Work Students Offering Friendly Phone Calls to Area Seniors


By Mike Emery

During this “new normal,” we often rely on texting, Zoom or email to connect with one another. For many people, however, there is no substitution for a friendly voice calling to say “Hello.”

The University of Houston-Downtown’s Dr. Angela Goins recognizes the power of positive communication in the lives of others, particularly senior populations. The social work lecturer and Director of UHD’s Collaboratory for Aging Resources and Education (CARE) is leading students in an initiative aimed at calling seniors who may feel isolated during the pandemic. As part of her summer online Introduction to Social Work & Social Welfare class, students have the opportunity to spend 30 minutes to an hour chatting with seniors to see to see how they are doing, if they need anything, and to learn about how they see the world.

This service learning initiative, “Adopt a Grandparent,” is conducted in conjunction with the Harris County Foster Grandparent Program at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center and with support from Tammy Mermelstein, a local aging expert and a UHD Social Work Field Instructor. Both Goins and Mermelstein coordinate this project.

“Seniors comprise one of the fastest growing populations in the United States,” Goins said. “There’s a need for social workers who can assist them right now. This initiative prepares students for helping the elderly. At one time or another, everyone will help a senior. It's an excellent start in not only supporting our older communities, but developing the compassion necessary to do so.”

Goins has incorporated the “Adopt a Grandparent” initiative in previous courses she’s taught in UHD’s Social Work Program (based in the College of Public Service). It has been a success with both students and those seniors receiving the phone calls. As part of her current class, students also have the option of volunteering at the Houston Food Bank, which also serves large senior populations.

“Seniors comprise one of the fastest growing populations in the United States. There’s a need for social workers who can assist them right now."
Dr. Angela Goins, UHD Social Work Lecturer

“This project has been a wonderful experience,” said student Alejandra Bravo. “I would like to encourage others to participate in ‘Adopt a Grandparent’ because it helps to create a bond between older adults and future social workers. It provided me with better insight into an older adult's daily life and how they connect with the world. I also learned about the strengths and challenges that older adults face and how they overcome obstacles."

This project soon will be complemented by additional work facilitated by Goins and Mermelstein through CARE, a new initiative of UHD’s Center for Public Service & Community Research. The Center, directed by Steven Villano, was recently awarded a $2,000 grant from Walmart. The funds, said Goins, will support a propsective project with the Wesley Community Center to also  connect students with seniors.

“We’re very grateful to Walmart for this gift that will make a difference in the lives of both our students and Houston seniors,” Goins said.

Through UHD’s CARE, Goins and Mermelstein will continue to engage students and geriatric communities through activities, research and community outreach initiatives. Currently, the collaborative is specifically responding to and advocating for seniors in light of their increased isolation due to COVID-19.

“Older adults already experience isolation in their homes in the community due to mental and physical decline related to increased age, but the pandemic has skyrocketed the level of isolation for many older adults especially those that live alone,” Goins said.

"This program is critical right now,” Mermelstein added. “Research has demonstrated that having a sense of purpose is crucial to healthy aging. For the older adults participating in this program, they literally went to bed one night in March with a clear sense of purpose and woke up the next with that sense of purpose evaporated. They are at risk for increased loneliness, which has been linked to severe health consequences."

Through CARE, students also gain communication skills and knowledge of working with the older adults and are often inspired to continue working with senior populations.

CARE initiatives and those implemented in Goins’ classes are a win-win for everyone involved. Aside from service learning and support, simply hearing a new voice makes a difference for both the students and participating seniors.

"When I was initially asked to participate...my first thought was 'we probably would not have much in common considering the huge age gap,'” said Joyce, a senior who was part of the Adopt a Grandparent program. “Needless to say, I couldn't have been more wrong. My conversation with my assigned student was surprisingly very pleasant, just like conversing with my own son. The tone he used with me made me feel what I had to say was important enough to him to listen to what I had to say.”

For additional information about CARE, please contact Steven Villano, Director of UHD’s Center for Public Service and Community Research at 713-226-5244 or via email at villanos@uhd.edu.

About the University of Houston-Downtown

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.