April 13, 2020

COVID response: Student volunteers launch services for vulnerable seniors

From regular check-in calls to a newly launched grocery delivery service, members of the M-Response Corps are making sure home-bound senior citizens feel supported

Caleb Cheng delivers groceries to seniors

One group of U-M medical students is working to make isolating at home is a little less lonely for southeast Michigan seniors.

From regular check-in calls to a newly launched grocery delivery service, members of the student-led M Response Corps are making sure home-bound senior citizens feel supported amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The geriatric population is a particularly vulnerable one. They might be less likely to venture out to pick up groceries, or they may be more impacted by social isolation because of technology limitations,” said third-year student Colin McMahon. “We as medical students can have a role in getting these individuals connected to resources if needed or at least lessen the feeling of being socially isolated.”

McMahon and a fellow student, Ariella Iancu, have coordinated with the Yspilanti Senior Center to create a program in which U-M student volunteers reach out to senior center members. Part social, part service oriented, the telephone calls started last week and provide an additional layer of support to some of the community’s most vulnerable members. Third-year student Miles McGovney has been making calls from Pittsburgh, where they returned after medical students were removed from clinical rotations and all classes were moved online.

“I’ve had some very nice conversations. One woman I spoke with is actually a healthcare volunteer aid for another gentleman in her community, but she hasn’t been able to do that because his facility is closed to visitors, so she’s been feeling particularly isolated,” McGovney said. “We were on the phone for maybe an hour. It was very sweet.”

The student volunteers are documenting who they reach, denoting whether that individual would like to receive future calls, and asking if they need help with services like grocery delivery. For those who need help, students Caleb Cheng, David Portney and Julia Cartwright have organized a small team of fellow students who are willing to do the shopping for high-risk individuals. Cheng’s first delivery was for an Ann Arbor woman with an autoimmune disorder who is also the primary caregiver for an elderly parent. The shopping list they provided to Cheng covered about a week’s worth of groceries.

“They provided me their list, their preferred store, and their address. We made the drop-off as close to zero-contact as possible,” Cheng said. “They were really thankful. It just eliminated the stress and worry of potential exposure, and that was huge for them. I am happy to take an hour of my day to relieve that stress.”

Cheng’s M Response Corps group has a small fund available so delivery volunteers don’t have to use their own cash up front. Recipients pay upon drop-off. Cheng has established an email for service requests — [email protected] — and the service is offered to every senior on the students’ senior call list as well.

That list may soon expand to include select Michigan Medicine geriatrics patients, as well as those served by the health system’s unique House Calls program, which provides in-home care to mobility challenged patients. Stacy Russell is a Nurse Practitioner with House Calls who has been in contact with the M Response Corps about ways medical students might engage their patients during COVID-19, which is making in-home visits a challenge.

“I’m really proud of our students for taking on an initiative like this,” Russell said. “For our geriatric patients who may be living far from family members, having an additional social connection can be invaluable. As a health system, we provide excellent care, but we don’t necessarily take the next step of providing a social connection. Right now, that’s so important.”

The benefit can be a two-way street, as students get to work closely with the elderly population outside the boundaries of a traditional medical rotation.

“As a nation, our elderly population is expanding such that geriatric medicine will overlap to some degree with almost any area of practice for future physicians,” Russell said. “So the experience of working with this population now is a great thing.”

For the students participating, there has been an immediate benefit, too. Third-year student Nicole Hadler has reached out to about two dozen seniors to date and has put several in the queue for follow-up phone calls.

“One of my favorite parts of medicine is connecting with patients. It’s fulfilling to have these conversations with people who really appreciate having someone to talk with,” she said. “For me, it’s a nice distraction from everything that’s going on. It keeps me positive and reminds me that there is more to life than the coronavirus.”

Story by Craig McCool, Communications Manager, Global REACH