CEAH volunteer takes older adults across globe virtually during pandemic

Since relocating from Boston to Kennebunkport, Elisa O’Donnell has become a critical part of the Center for Excellence in Aging and Health (CEAH) when it comes to online outreach.

“I was eager to find opportunities to work collaboratively with others in the Maine academic and professional communities to positively impact our healthcare system and specifically, how we approach and support aging in our region,” O’Donnell explained.

As a volunteer, O’Donnell leads or co-leads online outreach sessions designed to help older adults combat feelings of loneliness and isolation during the COVID-19 outbreak.

O’Donnell has helped expand the weekly sessions by taking them international.

“If we are online, why not connect our older adults anywhere,” O’Donnell commented. “To date we’ve taken our participants virtually to France, Spain, Germany, China, Switzerland, and Iceland to meet guests and share perspectives,”

Regi Robnett, Ph.D., OTR/L, associate director of CEAH and professor of occupational therapy, has been co-leading the international sessions with O’Donnell.

“We cannot travel right now, but we can be armchair travelers,” Robnett said. “We can help the older adults in our sessions gain perspectives on what is happening in other parts of the world — and not just with COVID-19. We also talk about aging and health care for older adults. It’s really just getting different perspectives from people.”

O’Donnell thinks we need new approaches when it comes to aging. That is the main reason she wanted to get involved with CEAH.

“I think aging is a prime topic for our country and, indeed, the world,” she said. “I think we have the wrong lens when we think about aging. We don’t really understand how to integrate our older adults throughout their lifespan. I think there is so much more they can be doing. There are so many more intergenerational things we can be doing.”

In her professional life, O’Donnell did a lot of consumer research in health care related to aging. She says Maine is the perfect place to begin looking at changes. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine’s residents are, on average, the oldest in the nation.

“We are the oldest state in the country, so how can we be doing something here that is really in the forefront?” she mused. “We can be an innovation hub for rethinking what is possible. That is really my interest, provoking a sense of curiousness around what could be, rather than what it is.”

O’Donnell is in discussions with a co-working space in Cambridge, Massachusetts that hosts several start-up businesses involved in issues related to health care and aging.

“We would like to bring them in to our sessions, talk about what they are doing, and have our older adults react to it,” she said.

Robnett says it has been fantastic to have O’Donnell’s input and insights at CEAH.

“She has been a great help and she has wonderful ideas,” Robnett commented. “I think it is refreshing. I wish we could bring in more people like her to volunteer.”

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