Homebound older adults often face a sense of loneliness few could imagine.

Caretakers have long sought ways to heal the pain of isolated aging adults and lower their risk of suicide. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the challenge.

A Virginia Tech researcher will pursue life-saving solutions with a $1.3 million federal grant.

Matthew Fullen, an assistant professor of counselor education in the School of Education, co-launched a research project to develop and evaluate an innovative training program. Suicide prevention among older adults represents the top goal of the phone-based training.

Fullen leads the project alongside Georgia State University colleagues Laura Shannonhouse and Mary Chase Mize. The training program under development is titled Belonging and Empathy, With Intentional Targeting Helping, or BE WITH.

Powered by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through the Administration for Community Living, the researchers plan to study the effectiveness of the training for nutrition service volunteers working with older adults in six metro Atlanta counties.

Ultimately, the researchers hope the National Council on Aging will add the training to its registry of programs.

Fullen said the research team previously received federal funds to study the benefits of training home-delivered meals volunteers in suicide prevention skills through the ASIST program, a suicide intervention training program. The new project and grant builds from this initial research.

“Once the pandemic hit, several of these volunteers described how they so wanted to help their home-delivered meals clients, but didn’t know what to do,” said Fullen. “We began outlining a phone-based program that would equip these volunteers with opportunities to connect with older adults who have difficulty leaving home.”

Participants in programs such as Meals on Wheels have long viewed the services as more than a meal delivery, said Fullen. “This project will foster more intentional social connections between these volunteers and homebound older adults at a time when relationships are sorely needed.”

The researchers plan to develop the training and pilot it with a small group of ASIST-trained volunteers before replicating the full program to demonstrate its viability across the country. Lessons from the team’s initial research will guide the program development process, Fullen said.

“We learned from the previous project that these volunteers are eager to develop a more dynamic set of responsibilities within the aging network. Many of them view meal delivery as a means to connect with older people in their communities, and they feel dissatisfied when their role is relegated to quickly dropping off a meal and then driving away,” he said.

“Our hope with the current project is to show that equipping volunteers with a broad range of skills — from suicide intervention to addressing social isolation and loneliness — provides the volunteers with a greater sense of role satisfaction. We also hope the project will contribute to addressing the spectrum of concerns that some older adults face in their communities.”

Fullen, who joined the School of Education in 2017, has worked with older adults since 2005. He said the pandemic has illuminated growing evidence of the harmful effects of social isolation and loneliness for many older adults in the United States. He offered tips for how members of the general public can help.

“Taking the time to connect with older friends and family members is especially important, and allowing people to express their disappointment, frustration, or sense of loneliness can go a long way,” said Fullen. “Two major risk factors for suicide are perceiving oneself to be a burden and feeling like you don’t belong. Reminding others that we love them and value their role in our lives has always been important, but that is true all the more during the pandemic.”

The project launched last fall and will continue through 2023.

“Dr. Fullen and his colleagues are helping all of us better understand the importance of experiential, community-engaged learning and applied research across the lifespan,” said Kristin Gehsmann, director of the School of Education. “Their efforts will not only impact the lives of participants, but the lessons learned from this research will help the next generation of counselor educators prepare clinicians and educators to better meet the needs of older adults.”

Fullen said he’s honored to serve in a project with the potential for a deep societal impact.

“Community-engaged scholarship is a core facet of fulfilling the Virginia Tech motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve),” said Fullen. “Opportunities like this grant are part of my calling to support those who are vulnerable and equip those who are willing to lend a helping hand. Participating in a project like this, in which so many people are coming together to do good, is quite a privilege.”

Written by Andrew Adkins