NIA-Funded Study Explores Re-Engagement of Black Older Adults After COVID-19

With the support of a $7 million National Institutes on Aging (NIA) Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center grant, Assistant Professor Rupal Parekh is leading a pilot study about the impact of social isolation and loneliness on the health and well-being of Black and African American older adults in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parekh’s research goal is to investigate both the barriers and the facilitators of engagement for Black and African American older adults in activities they enjoyed before the pandemic. These activities include attendance to church services, which formed the center of social engagement for many in this community, as well as involvement in senior centers. A body of research shows a direct relationship between isolation and negative health outcomes for older adults.

Preliminary findings are based on focus group interviews with leaders, staff and volunteers at churches and senior centers in the Greater Hartford area. The interviews explored engagement and disengagement among the older adults who had largely stopped going to church and senior centers during the height of the pandemic.

One finding is that older Black and African American adults are going to church again but more of them do it online than before the pandemic. “What I'm seeing is that churches have had to be creative in their offerings and they offer a variety of modalities for adults to be engaged,” says Parekh. Rather than return to attending in-person, where these elders had “eyes and ears” on them in the community, many older adults are compensating by continuing to attend online.

While this form of engagement helps reduce isolation for older adults, it does not encourage physical activity, which also decreased during the pandemic. “When you're only online, you're not getting up, going in a car, you're not moving,” she observes. “There's likely an impact in the long run with health and health outcomes.”

Generally, Parekh and Co-Principal Investigator Christine Tocchi, an assistant professor at UConn School of Nursing, have found that despite ongoing concerns about COVID, older Black and African American adults have been excited to return to church and to senior centers in their communities.

In the second phase of her work, which is near completion, Parekh and the research team are conducting one-on-one interviews with 30 seniors. Those interviews examine how the adults are engaged in various aspects of their lives, including shopping and gathering with friends. Once those interviews are analyzed, the plan is to present the findings to the older adults and service providers to co-develop interventions that will foster re-engagement.

Read more about the research in a story on UConn Today and Parekh’s work.