Responding to real-time community needs

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in Houston, the leaders of the Humana Institute knew there was an immediate opportunity to respond. Among the many impacts of the pandemic, loneliness and social isolation in seniors (and in students) became a much more significant issue. Additionally, many students lost jobs and other sources of income as social distancing and quarantine/stay-at-home orders expanded. Likewise, summer internships and field placements for clinical students were canceled.

Humana and University of Houston leaders leveraged an existing pilot relationship with Papa Inc. to combat loneliness and social isolation in seniors. Papa Pals – in this case University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work students – are paired with seniors to conduct voice and video calls to engage with them and address issues with loneliness. This virtual companionship was extended to over 3,000 Humana members who have screened positive for loneliness. About 50 UH students were enrolled as Pals. Within only a few days, Pals and their senior counterparts had scheduled over 1100 visits for the coming six months.

“This program has so many wins associated with it,” said Luis Torres Ph.D., Graduate College of Social Work and Humana Endowed Chair in Social Determinants of Health. “Students are able to get field placement hours that were otherwise canceled for the summer. They are also doing good in the community by interacting with severely lonely seniors, which helps the students’ mental state as well, and they are getting paid to do it. This is truly a win-win-win-win.” Institute leaders will leverage data from pre- and post-surveys to study the impact of the intervention on loneliness.