After a few months of seeing the impact of COVID-19, Dee Dee Diaz was eager to find a way to support people experiencing loneliness. Fueled by a passion for serving older adults, she read about the Sunshine Calls program and knew she could help.
“It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to support older adults within our community during a difficult time,” Diaz says.
Sunshine Calls volunteers like Diaz phone older, often homebound adults to check in and chat for a few minutes a day. The program — developed in response to the increased physical and social isolation that, for many, came with the pandemic — is a partnership of Meals on Wheels Central Texas and Factor Health, an initiative of Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin that tests and builds programs at scale to deliver health outside of clinics and hospitals.
“The partnership initially focused on diabetes management, but the pandemic quickly highlighted a new need,” says Nicole Clark, the program launch lead for Factor Health who spearheaded the effort to quickly jump-start the new program. “The social connection provided by the Sunshine Calls program helps to alleviate the isolation and loneliness that have been proven to impact the health of older adults.”
As part of the program, participating MOWCTX clients — 110 to date — receive phone calls over four weeks from volunteers trained in empathy, communication and responding to concerns. The volunteers work with each client to better understand the individual needs and customize the number of calls per week, typically between three and five. During these calls, volunteers let the client guide the conversation with topics, like gardening or new recipes, that they want to talk about. After four weeks, participants are given the option to continue receiving one check-in call per week from MOWCTX.
Built into Sunshine Calls is a randomized controlled trial that will assess the effect of the effort by measuring a range of mental health and quality-of-life outcomes through standardized, clinically relevant measurement tools. The trial adds to a growing body of evidence on the connection between loneliness and health, as well as programs that may be effective in reducing feelings of isolation among older adults.
‘I Wanted to Be a Source of Connection’
While Diaz, who is working on her master’s degree in social work at UT Austin, was inspired to join the Sunshine Calls program by her previous experiences working with older people, other volunteers, like Angela Kang, were fueled by a desire for contact.
“I wanted to be able to serve as a source of connection but also learn from new people and gain my own sense of connection during this time where everyone is feeling some kind of social isolation,” Kang says.
“Loneliness, depression and feelings of isolation are ‘viruses’ that can negatively affect the health of the vulnerable homebound older Central Texans we serve,” says Adam Hauser, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels Central Texas. “During the pandemic, our clients are receiving few — if any — visitors other than our dedicated volunteers who safely deliver their meals. Sunshine Calls fill that void with caring conversations that make a world of difference in the lives of homebound seniors.”
The calls also made a difference in the lives of the volunteers. Diaz was surprised by how close she felt to those she called.
“It was bittersweet, having that final phone call with each of them, because I felt as if they had all made an impact on me in their own way,” she says.
Like Diaz, many Sunshine Calls volunteers share that they feel connected to their clients, despite having never met in person.
“In the beginning, I was skeptical that I could call people I’ve never met, have a different conversation with them every day and make it meaningful for the both of us,” Kang says. “But by the end of it, it felt like calling friends.”
The social connection provided by the Sunshine Calls program helps to alleviate the isolation and loneliness that have been proven to impact the health of older adults.
Nicole Clark, MBA
Associate director, Health Ecosystem
Looking Toward the Future
Now at the end of the first round of Sunshine Calls, Rhonda Aubrey, co-director of Factor Health, is confident in the program’s potential to improve health outside of the clinic.
“We will continue to iterate the program, exploring impact with different populations, those with specific medical conditions for example, and possibly different demographics of the callers. We want to hone our expertise to hire and train the right callers based on the groups we are serving,” she says.
Sunshine Calls is only one of many programs Factor Health is developing in collaboration with social service providers, health care payers and investors.
“Organizations like Meals on Wheels Central Texas are impacting health in important ways, but the current health care system doesn’t pay them for it,” says Mini Kahlon, Ph.D., Dell Med’s vice dean of the Health Ecosystem and executive director of Factor Health. “Our ultimate goal with Factor Health is to change that by proving outcomes that are worth paying for. With the success of the Sunshine Calls program, we’re one step closer to achieving that goal.”