Social Work Researcher Seeks to Re-engage Black and African American Older Adults Isolated by COVID-19

Working to reconnect people with the activities and social ties that sustained them before the pandemic

Group Of Retired Seniors Attending Art Class In Community Centre With Teacher

School of Social Work Assistant Professor Rupal Parekh has long been interested in studying the impact of social isolation and loneliness on the health and well-being of Black, Hispanic, and immigrant older adults. When the opportunity to apply for a National Institutes on Aging (NIA) grant presented itself, she pursued it to study a persistent problem resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic: the isolation of a vulnerable community of older African Americans in Hartford.

“Black and African American older adults were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” says Parekh, whose pilot study is supported by part of the $7 million NIA Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center grant awarded to UConn Center on Aging. The data show that African Americans have higher rates of infection and death from the virus. Their continued isolation only compounds the risks to their well-being.

Parekh says the research shows a direct relationship between isolation and negative health outcomes for older adults, such as falls, depression, and poor management of chronic illnesses like heart disease. Her conversations with community partners, including church pastors and providers at senior centers in the Hartford area, revealed that many Black older adults had stopped going to senior centers and to church during the height of the pandemic due to fear of exposure to COVID-19 and other concerns.

The church is the center of social engagement for many Black and African American older adults. Although most churches and senior centers have opened up their doors again, some older adults may still be fearful and uncertain about going back. As such, many remain disengaged.

That’s a focus of my research: how we can create age-friendly communities so that all people can have meaningful opportunities to stay engaged — Assistant Professor Rupal Parekh

“I wanted to better understand the barriers and facilitators of engagement to churches and senior centers among Black and African American older adults, and work with the churches and the senior centers to develop an intervention to re-engage this population,” she adds. Parekh and the research team are collaborating with Co-Principal Investigator Christine Tocchi, assistant professor of nursing at UConn School of Nursing.

With the grant Parekh and her team are trying to better understand how to provide meaningful opportunities for engagement post-COVID-19. To delve into this under-researched area, she plans to first conduct focus groups with key stakeholders, including staff and volunteers at both senior centers and churches that serve Black and African American older adults. Those stakeholders will help define engagement and disengagement from their perspective.

By enlisting the community’s input in the development of the research, Parekh and her colleagues ensure that the project is community-based and participatory. The researchers aim to recruit seniors from both churches and senior centers, and reach a diverse group in terms of gender, to explore potential similarities and differences. “What we’ve heard is that churches have seen fewer men show up because there was a social aspect to church before for men that is no longer there,” Parekh notes. Some seniors have also lost friends to COVID.

Input from the community will also help Parekh and the research team refine other aspects of the project, which include both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. The former method involves a survey. “The quantitative questions are different assessment tools that we will be using to measure depression, physical activity, and participation to name a few factors,” she explains.

The qualitative piece consists of one-on-one, in-person interviews with seniors, which will be conducted by Master of Social Work students who are also African American and Black. The interviewers will explore participants’ engagement and disengagement in everyday activities pre- and post-COVID and look for common themes that will assist in the development of an engagement intervention. The student investigators will maintain research diaries to record notes and impressions in addition to analyzing interview transcripts.

When the data from focus groups and individual interviews are analyzed, Parekh’s team will then organize a workshop to present the findings to the older adults with the aim of “co-developing” interventions that churches and senior centers could implement. A solution might involve, for example, a carpooling service for those who have been missing church because they don’t have transportation or a buddy system for those who don’t have friends at a senior center or church anymore.

“These are the potential types of interventions that we can develop to encourage folks to go back to church and go back to some of these social activities that were meaningful to them,” says Parekh.

The ultimate goal of the work is to re-engage older adults to the activities that sustained them pre-COVID and reduce their isolation, particularly in BIPOC communities, which Parekh has witnessed up close as a former clinical social worker and as the daughter of immigrants. “That’s a focus of my research: how we can create age-friendly communities so that all people can have meaningful opportunities to stay engaged throughout their lives,” says Parekh.