With COVID-19 Grant, Students Launch Program to Ease Social Isolation Among Washington Heights Seniors

May 29, 2020 @ 7:56 pm

Left to right: Daniella Spencer-Laitt (MSW’20), Amanda Weiss (CC’17, MSW’20) and Jennifer Strauss (CC’16), founders of WH Senior Link.

Want to put your social work skills to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic? Two of our recent MSW graduates did just that, setting up a program for isolated seniors.

The coronavirus pandemic has put older adults in a catch-22 situation. On the one hand, they are more likely than any other group to succumb to serious illness due to COVID-19. On the other, the kinds of measures that can protect them against contagion—avoiding going out and remaining socially distant—can also put their health at risk. According to evidence collected by the National Academies of Sciences, feelings of social isolation and loneliness are serious public health risks that affect a significant portion of the older adult population.

Worried about the plight of seniors attempting to navigate these countervailing forces, two members of this year’s graduating class, Daniella Spencer-Laitt (MSW’20) and Amanda Weiss (CC’17, MSW’20), have taken action on behalf of the elderly population of Washington Heights, a neighborhood in northern Manhattan. They teamed up with Columbia College alumna Jennifer Strauss (CC’16) to create Washington Heights Senior Link, a program that aims to reduce the social isolation of seniors by linking them with volunteers, who commit to calling them once a week and sending letters ever two weeks. The program also tries to connect the seniors with each other, likewise through phone chats and letters, over their shared hobbies and interests.

A COVID-19 Rapid Response Micro-Grant from the School of Social Work provided the seed money for the program to recruit volunteers from across the country for pairing with 30 to 40 Washington Heights seniors. Volunteers received training as well as money for putting together a care package for their senior partner, containing items like hand sanitizer and healthy snacks.

According to Spencer-Laitt, direct-service volunteers need not have special skills but should be “empathic listeners who are comfortable interacting with seniors.” The training provided by Senior Link focuses on how to conduct a needs assessment and help older adults navigate resources they may need, through a resource directory the program has set up.

Spencer-Laitt added that Senior Link is also seeking experienced clinicians, such as licensed social workers, to volunteer for helping out with supervision, consultation, and screening of direct-service volunteers.

“We would love to have more involvement from the CSSW community and welcome any ideas or input that anyone has,” she said. “Our goal is to reach as many socially isolated seniors as possible.”

If all goes well—WH Senior Link received some early publicity with an article in Patch and a call-out in BuzzFeed—and fund raising progresses, the ambition is to expand the program to other parts of New York City.

To get involved, please visit the Senior Link website. You can also check out their flyer: