The pandemic has hit older adults especially hard. Not only are they more at risk for becoming severely ill or dying from COVID-19, but this vulnerability also has led to increased isolation. But nursing students at UT Health San Antonio are helping to ease this isolation and ensure health needs for older adults in the community.

In years past, nursing students taking part in population health clinicals would make wellness visits to senior centers that provide services to individuals aged 60 or older on the west side of San Antonio. Adelita Cantu, PhD, RN, associate professor in the School of Nursing, has led the wellness visits for more than a decade. When the pandemic made it unsafe for older adults to attend programs at the centers, she quickly adapted wellness visits to wellness phone calls.

“Seniors have a better quality of life as well as an increased life expectancy when they continue building their social networks,” said Dr. Cantu. “These senior centers are really important to keeping a social support system, particularly when a senior is living alone. Calling on a weekly basis is a way to fill that gap and to have continuity of support.”

Students are paired with older adults enrolled in senior programs at Good Samaritan Community Center and St. Timothy’s Catholic Church. During their weekly call, students ask questions about health and wellness, ensuring that they have enough food and are getting their medication. They check their vitals, screen for signs of depression and address mobility and transportation issues.

“Dr. Cantu and the students have really helped make this a senior center without walls,” said Ellie Saucedo, director of Field Education Services and Adult Resources at Good Samaritan Community Center.

Saucedo said the biggest issues for older adults are food insecurity, transportation, isolation, and lack of technology, which have all been exacerbated by the pandemic. But the nursing students are able to determine these red flags and notify those who can intervene with the proper community resources.

“The nursing student calls are absolutely priceless because we can’t reach them all. There’s no way we can,” Saucedo said. “And to have their health expertise, reaching out personally to each one of our seniors is just incredible. It’s huge to be able to prevent some of these issues rather than catching it at the other end when it’s too late.”

For students, the senior wellness calls are an opportunity to refine communication skills and understand the importance of building trust and developing relationships with patients.

“It helps me realize how important the little things are,” said Joelly Aguilar, a fourth-year nursing student who is currently participating in the wellness calls. “Just a phone call for five or 10 minutes can be really meaningful. We’re building relationships with them.”

A simple phone call can prevent everything from potential falls to hypoglycemic events, Aguilar said. And even though many of the older adults feel very alone and fearful right now, they look forward to the wellness calls every Monday.

“It’s the importance of human touch,” Dr. Cantu said. “No matter which way it is. It could be over the phone or it could be virtual, but it’s still human touch.”

In addition to the wellness calls, Dr. Cantu and the students put on a health fair on Oct. 19. The students and older adults were finally able to meet face to face, with masks, and administer flu shots, take blood pressure, demonstrate how to use at-home health equipment and register to vote.