College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Statements Feature: Look for the Helpers

Look for the Helpers

by Elaine Eshbaugh, professor of gerontology


Elaine EshbaughAs I reflect on this spring, I am saddened by how COVID-19 has impacted our older adults.

In particular, I think of the nursing home residents who are isolated in their rooms with no outside visitors, no congregate meals and no group activities.

Many are acutely aware of the COVID-19 risk and are fearful that the virus will hit their facility. As of mid-May, it was reported that over one-third of all U.S. coronavirus deaths are nursing home residents or workers.

Others may have dementia or cognitive challenges and struggle to understand why they can’t leave their rooms, why their family isn’t visiting and why people around them are wearing masks. COVID-19 has made a population that is challenged by isolation even more isolated. Not surprisingly, people who live in nursing homes have a higher rate of depression than the general population. I don’t know of any studies that have collected data since the onset of COVID-19, but I can only imagine those numbers are increasing.

As a professor of gerontology, I work with many students who are employed at nursing homes and assisted living facilities in various capacities (e.g., dietary staff, activity professional, certified nursing assistant).

When UNI transitioned to online courses in the midst of the pandemic, many picked up additional hours because their schedules became more flexible.

They quickly adapted to new protocols and safeguards, and (in Zoom conversations with them) I learned that they were going above and beyond their job descriptions, in addition to somehow keeping up with their online courses and succeeding academically.

Although some facilities have worked hard to keep up with technology, others lag behind in what they are offering residents. Many nursing homes and assisted living facilities do not have the capacity to offer video chats to their residents. However, a trend emerged a few weeks into the COVID crisis: our gerontology students, who are well-versed in FaceTime, Skype and Zoom, were coming to work early and staying late to allow residents to video conference with their families.

Many of our gerontology alumni are leaders in the field and have had to make difficult decisions during this time.

Recently, a gerontology alum who administers a nursing home in the Des Moines area was looking to borrow or rent a small RV to park near the nursing home, just in case he was needed in an urgent situation. Alumni who work in lifestyle enrichment and programming have had to forego group activities and come up with creative ideas to engage residents in their rooms.

An additional challenge is ensuring that all supplies are diligently sanitized if they are shared by residents. It is no secret that nursing homes have been hit hard by COVID-19, but hospitals are more likely to obtain personal protective equipment (PPE). Many of the alumni from our nursing home administration program have been challenged to locate and purchase PPE and also choose how to disperse PPE when it arrives at the facility. These decisions have serious implications for both residents and staff.

Many of our graduates work in programs that serve older adults in their homes. They have worked diligently to enroll more individuals in “senior meals” (aka, Meals on Wheels) programs. They’ve also worked in various ways to make sure medications and grocery delivery are available. During this time, these acts are nothing less than heroic. When we give older adults the option to stay home, we save lives.

I’ve coordinated our gerontology program for more than ten years, and I’ve always been inspired by how our current and former students make a difference to older adults and their families.

It is not an overstatement to say that right now their actions are life-saving. I have never been more proud to be a part of the UNI community.


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