ATLANTA—With a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) researchers are developing and evaluating the Belonging and Empathy, With Intentional Targeted Helping (BE WITH) project, which is designed to reduce social isolation, loneliness and elevated suicide risk in racially diverse older adults, the demographic hardest hit by COVID-19.

Georgia State University associate professor Laura Shannonhouse, doctoral student Mary Chase Mize and Matthew Fullen from Virginia Tech are evaluating the effectiveness of the training program for nutrition service volunteers who work with old adults in six metro Atlanta counties.

The researchers hope to demonstrate that BE WITH should be added to the National Council on Aging’s registry of programs, a necessary step that allows states to access federal Title IIID funds to equip their networks with suicide prevention resources.

Their grant work builds off a previous DHHS-funded research grant Shannonhouse led in metro Atlanta before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her team tracked more than 51 suicide interventions led by nutrition service volunteers just before the pandemic. They learned these volunteers acquired suicide intervention skills and used them.

«Nutrition service volunteers are often a life connection for homebound older adults and are uniquely positioned to offer life-assisting interventions when needed,» Shannonhouse said.

In addition to the BE WITH project’s development and evaluation, the grant funding supports the research team’s efforts to evaluate COVID-19’s impact on mental health in older adults. They have already found older adult suicide desire has increased in the wake of the pandemic with some participants. They are examining thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness, which together summarize suicide desire, and are arguably exacerbated by COVID-19. The physical distancing interventions needed to protect older adults are isolating, and COVID-19 ethical treatment guidelines tend to prioritize care for younger patients.

Shannonhouse and her colleagues will evaluate nutrition service volunteers’ responding behaviors with at-risk older adults in real time — such as empathic connections and suicide intervention over time — and these behaviors’ potential benefits on reduced depression, anxiety, suicidal desire, suicide behaviors, and increased social support and well-being among older adults.

«We hope to demonstrate how nutrition services can decrease social isolation, loneliness and elevated suicide risk among older adults by equipping volunteers to be with them during COVID-19 and beyond,» Shannonhouse said.

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Additional partners in the work include the North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services, Casey Barrio Minton from the University of Tennessee Knoxville and Audrey Leroux, a methodologist and associate professor in Georgia State’s College of Education & Human Development.

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