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Medical students unite to alleviate seniors’ isolation during COVID-19

Older adult woman speaking on the phone

"Isolation is an everyday event for a lot of these seniors — they are homebound in many cases, and the only contact they have is with their family. Even without the pandemic, they may not see people for days at a time." — Elias Hazan, SSIPP volunteer and third-year medical student at the University of Toronto

As social creatures, our well-being is tied to feeling connected to others.  Yet for many of Canada’s seniors, particularly those who are homebound or face language barriers, maintaining meaningful connections can be a struggle — complicated further by COVID-19.

At the height of the pandemic, when physical distancing measures were at their strictest and many long-term care facilities implemented no-visitor policies, many seniors found themselves completely isolated from family and friends.

Offering a friendly voice — even at a distance — can be a powerful way of helping.

That's the social prescription a group of medical students was looking to provide for seniors when they founded the Student-Senior Isolation Prevention Partnership (SSIPP) COVID-19 Response Program in March 2020, shortly after the pandemic began.

The SSIPP program pairs student volunteers with socially isolated seniors in their community — arranging weekly phone calls where the students provide company, offer comfort and improve seniors’ health literacy about COVID-19. Volunteers can also connect seniors to community services they might have difficulty finding if they don’t use the Internet, such as grocery delivery services or mental health hotlines.

Monisha Persaud and the SSIPP team received a COVID-19 innovation grant from Joule. Learn more about the program and grant recipients

Led by medical students Monisha Persaud, Geoffrey Sem and Victoria O'Driscoll and one of their professors, Dr. Sabrina Akhtar, the SSIPP COVID-19 Response Program is based on an earlier program where medical students visited older adults in their community in Toronto, Ontario.

Here's what SSIPP’s volunteers had to say about the program and helping seniors stay socially connected:

Since launching, SSIPP has expanded to include more than 10 university chapters nationwide and over 500 student volunteers who speak a total of 38 languages. Their co-founders shared a few takeaways about how they did it:

How did you change your focus once the pandemic hit?

  • Monisha says their original program, which included in-person visits, began in 2019 as a collaboration between University of Toronto medical students and the family health team at the University Health Network’s Toronto Western Hospital.
  • Once the pandemic hit and social distancing measures increased, they had to cease all in-person visits.
  • Realizing the importance of maintaining a social connection with these older adults, they chose to redesign the program — switching to phone conversations and adopting a chapter-based model. They also added training documents to equip volunteers to improve seniors’ COVID-19 health literacy and point them to community resources.
  • A few more changes helped them scale nationally:
    • They shifted their training to an online format.
    • They extended their reach to recruit more seniors, contacting family health teams, family health offices and community organizations about the service.
    • Each chapter has appointed a physician advisor and team leaders to take care of local program outreach, media coverage and community partnerships.
    • They publish an internal newsletter, where volunteers from each chapter can share stories about the connections they’ve made with their senior partners.


What have you done to ensure SSIPP can continue meeting the needs of seniors long-term?

  • Geoffrey says that they recently registered SSIPP as a national not-for-profit organization, allowing them to take on advocacy work and increase their impact.
  • They recently appointed a national executive council and created a long-term vision planning committee, where representatives from various chapters plan for long-term success and sustainability and standardize national program procedures.
  • The Toronto Western Hospital is working on a formal study to evaluate SSIPP’s impact and to help them with continuous quality improvement, and several additional research projects are underway, including a national quality improvement initiative.


What’s next for SSIPP?

  • Victoria says they’re always looking to increase awareness about SSIPP to reach more seniors who need social connection.
  • They’re working on expanding their referral process to include self-referrals and family referrals, allowing seniors who don’t have regular contact with a health care provider to join.
  • Once it’s safe to do so, they hope to resume in-person visits at a distance.

“We believe our experience expanding this program nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic will serve us well to meet the needs of older adults in future waves and pandemics.” – Monisha Persaud

More stories about Joule's COVID-19 Innovation grant recipients:

This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule. 

About the author(s)

CMA Joule supports physicians and medical learners in the pursuit of clinical excellence. As a subsidiary of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), we support the profession with continuing education and other learning opportunities as well as leading evidence-based clinical products and research.