The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged Americans emotionally, socially and economically — and its destruction is far from over. As social distancing measures leave thousands in their homes, many senior citizens, the group most vulnerable to the virus, have been faced a disproportionate risk of physical and mental harm. Rafey Khan (21C), Leanne Jeong (22C), Lia Rubel (23C) and Sneha Thandra (22C) wanted to change this. As state leads of nonprofit TeleHealth Access for Seniors, they help senior citizens remotely socialize and connect with their healthcare provider, friends and family.
The student-run nonprofit operates in 26 states and partners with over 75 clinics ranging from veterans associations to women’s shelters. Rubel, Thandra, Jeong and Khan spearheaded the organization’s expansion in Vermont, Virginia, Georgia and Florida, respectively.
The mission of TeleHealth Access for Seniors, founded by Yale students in March of 2020, is to provide seniors and low-income communities with video-enabled devices such as old phones and tablets, technology guides and device tech-support to connect them with their physicians and families in the safety of their homes.
In Vermont, Rubel recruited eight other volunteers, raised $420 through a Facebook fundraiser and acquired 100 devices for the White River Junction VA Medical Center.
As the world battles the pandemic, Rubel noted that the negative mental health effects of measures like social distancing can often be left on the backburner.
“This pandemic has shown how important social contact is in our lives, as almost every aspect of life has changed to create social distance,” Rubel said. “Addressing social isolation might be as important to our health as the most powerful medicines that ultimately need to be developed for COVID.”
Connecting senior citizens with their friends and family is crucial, she said, as social isolation can cause not only psychological harm but can exacerbate many pre-existing health conditions.
“Isolation has been linked to many physical and mental health problems including heart disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression,” Rubel said.
Several states south, Thandra partnered with the Charlottesville Free Clinic and collected 25 devices. Along with her team of three other volunteers, she coordinates with donors to receive donations, sanitizes the devices according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and delivers the devices to the clinic for distribution.
Thandra noted that community efforts to reduce the damages wrought by COVID-19 are inadvertently causing new health risks for senior citizens, as many suffer from comorbidities and require intensive care and monitoring. These free devices allow seniors to continue to quarantine and refrain from traveling to a hospital.
In Georgia, the organization partnered with South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta and Mercy Care in Atlanta to collect devices. As the state lead, Jeong has raised awareness and solicited donations on social media for the organization’s GoFundMe page.
Jeong noted that, though the world is living in the “age of technology,” many seniors experience difficulties affording the cost of video-enabled devices.
“Those under quarantine or in isolation are experiencing emotional and, possibly, financial hardship,” Jeong said. “Not everybody can afford a device right now.”
Additionally, many senior citizens have difficulty properly utilizing new technology. In response, the organization has developed technology guides that have been translated to Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Korean and Spanish, and offers free volunteer-run tech-support.
In Florida, a hotspot for retirees, Khan partnered with the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center and has witnessed the benefits of telemedicine. There are over 4.1 million Floridians over the age of 65, and the state has been hit particularly hard by the virus.
Khan collaborated with the volunteer center’s social workers to assess how many veterans were in need of a device and has since donated 25 devices to senior veterans.
According to its website, TeleHealth Access for Seniors has already connected over 1,500 seniors with devices and raised $63,000 in donations to expand the organization and reach more people. But with a demand of 3,500 devices for seniors in South Florida alone, Khan knows there is “still much, much more work to do.”
The students stressed that new volunteers can make an impact for senior citizens in their communities by helping collect devices or even spearheading the initiative in their own state.
“I’ve heard stories of people breaking down in tears upon receiving a device,” Khan said. “Many elderly were abandoned or isolated when society went into lockdown, and simply put, these devices can actually be life-saving.”