A telephone-based community health worker (CHW) program offered critical supports for older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Older adults face greater risk of social isolation, a known driver of diminished mental and physical health, self-reported wellness, and engagement in health-promoting behaviors. These risk factors were further heightened by behavioral changes and pandemic mitigation measures related to COVID-19. CHWs — also known as community health representatives, promotoras, and peer navigators — are trusted health professionals, bridging the gap between community members and health and social services.
The Indiana Geriatrics Education and Training Center (GETC) offers Geriatrics Care (G-Care), a CHW program primarily catered to older adults served by local federally qualified health centers. Adapted into a telephone-based program, G-Care provided critical support to participants during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study offers insight into how CHWs can enhance older adults’ well-being and access to health-related resources.
Through qualitative analysis of 793 telephone encounters with 358 participants between March 2020 and August 2021, the authors identify common ways that CHWs supported participants’ well-being and access to health-related resources. Participants typically experienced an interconnected relationship between resource access, social support, and mental well-being, with familial relationships offering support across all three needs. CHWs were able to address some gaps when family support was unavailable, often arranging for grocery and medication delivery, assisting with navigating public transportation, and arranging transportation. Many CHWs also assisted with coordinating logistics related to moving, including Identifying affordable and accessible housing, providing assistance with paperwork, and coordinating with social workers and landlords.
The experience of G-Care CHWs and participants during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the benefits of CHW programs to both participants and the health care system at large. G-Care CHWs were able to address needs that typically fall outside the scope of traditional health services, yet are closely tied to health-related needs. The insights offered by this study into older adults’ experience during the COVID-19 pandemic also highlights the impact of social isolation and familial relationships as social determinants of health.