Geriatric Buddy Program Eases Social Isolation During COVID-19

Elderly person video chatting

Most older adults are avoiding social contact with families and friends to reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19 and becoming ill, but this social isolation is taking its toll on people’s physical and mental health.

At UAMS Health, based in Little Rock, Arkansas, a pilot program called Geriatric Buddy is addressing the challenges of social isolation by setting up virtual visits with older adults living in local nursing homes or by themselves. Volunteering for these visits are medical residents, fellows and third- and fourth-year students from several UAMS colleges.

The buddies meet via Zoom or FaceTime (or by phone) to chat and also engage in social activities like playing board games, doing puzzles, reading books, exercising or listening to music. The Medical Education Foundation of Arkansas, sponsored by the Arkansas Medical Society, donated $1,000 for the program to purchase games and other materials.

Besides increasing social interactions, the Geriatric Buddy program can help identify and address challenges like food insecurity and nutritional deficits that may be affecting the health of some older adults.

UAMS geriatrician Priya Mendiratta, M.D., who leads the program with a colleague, explained the importance of the program: “Our experience in the past has taught us that social isolation in the elderly puts them at risk for further cognitive decline, worsening of depression and anxiety and other chronic health risks.”

She adds, “Isolating the elderly might reduce transmission of the virus, but we have to look into strategies to help them stay mentally and physically well. … We all need to reach out to older neighbors in our neighborhoods. We all need to take those small steps.”