Episode 10: Older Adults and Well-being with Ayesha Dixon


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

This current moment of social distancing is particularly hard on populations most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness, like older adults, people with disabilities, and those with mobility issues. Social isolation among older adults is a serious public health concern that we are even more worried about during this pandemic. Today, I will be chatting with Ayesha Dixon, the director of UCLA’s Emeriti/Retirees Relations Center, about the effects of COVID-19 on the lives of seniors, and what we can all do to help reduce this isolation and loneliness.  What a pleasure to be able to talk to you today about a really important subject that surrounds COVID-19, which is the subject of our population who is over 60 or 65, who are really a group a population that we’re trying to protect in this period of hunkering down at home. And I’d love to hear from you, first of all, how you started in this field in the first place, what got you to think about studying it as a map for a Master’s program and make it a career for yourself.


Ayesha Dixon  01:18

Yeah, absolutely. This career kind of just came out of the interest that I had in college. I have always done some sort of volunteer work, and working with special populations. I considered a degree in urban planning and noticed a lot of the issues surrounding urban planning were also involving seniors and access to resources. So I focused my attention on services that would benefit older populations. who are either rural, low-income, even tribal groups who don’t have access to as many resources as someone in a younger generation. Technology evolves so fast, and I found it important to try to keep up with keeping seniors engaged. And it just kind of snowballed. I started out as a program assistant, just creating PowerPoints for an organization in D.C. And it just grew. A lot of the new grants that were being given out were for technology and telehealth, and it really just exploded into a whole new field that I didn’t even know gerontology existed. But it definitely spurred my interest and to relocating to California and getting the Master’s in gerontology.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  02:36

So when I first met you when you arrived at UCLA, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Master’s in gerontology. And I remember you telling me that your class, your cohort, was a class of about 50. And now how many are there in that particular Master’s program?


Ayesha Dixon  02:52

There’s almost about 200 or so in the gerontology program at USC. It’s definitely as baby boomers are getting older and a lot of folks are in this sandwich generation of taking care of children and older adults. It’s grown enormously as far as the field and the interest that people are having into the older population. And it’s interesting, because I remember in the Obama administration, he had moved his mother-in-law into the White House. And people were all kind of up in arms as, oh, he’s caring for, you know, his mother-in-law and a lot of the new policies and administration things that he did were about older adults and Medicaid and Medicare services.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:35

I love that his mother-in-law lived with them. It just was really close to my own experience with my own family. Tell me, what do you study in gerontology?


Ayesha Dixon  03:45

So in gerontology you’re focusing on the non-medical aspects of aging. So whereas geriatrics is the medical components of physically, biologically how people age, gerontology is the psychosocial aspects of well-being and inclusivity and reframing what people think about aging and making it more age-positive, where we’re thinking about things about longevity, people living longer, healthier ways to get older and incorporating a lot more mindfulness and understanding how people adapt emotionally and socially with getting older. A lot of people do become isolated when they’re older, a lot of their friends, perhaps, pass away and they become really, really sheltered and they’re trying to figure out how their life plays a role post-retirement and it’s a big challenge for a lot of seniors to retire, especially if they’ve been in a field where they helped grow the field, or they’re a part of research projects, or they’re really tied to their community. And it’s a definitely a different mental adjustment to just make that work-life transition to your new phase of life. People have different phases of life where they have children, they get married, maybe they move, and retirement is the next biggest life change. And people still struggle with having to stay busy and having to now fill their time with non-work-related activities. It’s a really big adjustment for a lot of people.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:19

What I find interesting based on what you’re describing, too, is that, you know, I know there’s this longitudinal study going on right now with the aging population in the United States with a cross sectional group of people. And Dr. McClintock published a study that was in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences talking about what were the biggest predictors of well-being or death in the next five years in this population. And what you studied really are what are the biggest predictors, almost, irregardless of the medical diagnoses that they have. The poor mental health, poor sensory function, and poor social engagement were the among the biggest predictors of poor health or death in the next five years. And the greatest predictor of well-being and being alive in the next five years is mobility. And those have nothing to do with the medical system, per se. They do in the sense that physicians need to be and other health care providers need to be cognizant of these as being so impactful. But your specialty seems to be the one that’s so important in this stage.


Ayesha Dixon  06:23

Absolutely. It’s a real vulnerable population. Especially as you age, the loss of independence is terrifying for a lot of people, and also the mobility issues. And when they had to go get their driver’s license renewed, the fear of having to take a driver’s test, so the fear of not remembering something. And for a lot of seniors, if they lose their driver’s license, that’s a huge decline for them, because they feel like now they have no way to get around and no way to see those friends and families. And there really needs to be a stronger connection between the coordinated services of our healthcare system that deals with seniors who may be, you know, check their eyes, check their ears, check their blood pressure, and those community-based resources that deal with the more social well-being and the emotional needs of an older population. It’s even those with disabilities, not just older adults, but those who have other disabilities.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  07:17

So, you know, with your expertise, and the COVID-19 pandemic that we’re confronted with today, with the understanding that we are sheltering-in-place really to protect vulnerable populations, like the the older population, and with the understanding, though, that these populations, then are therefore more isolated. I mean, it’s a real kind of rub between two issues: isolation to be safe from the pandemic, but then there’s isolation that can cause more distress among this population, which is already vulnerable and that’s in and of itself.


Ayesha Dixon  07:56

Yeah, I think no one knew that this unintended consequence of social distancing would really impact seniors the way it has. I think a lot of healthcare providers are getting more into telehealth and kind of helping people understand what that means, and how to engage our seniors with telehealth medicine, and to put interventions in place to make those of doctor’s appointments happen. The key here is awareness and communication. While online technology is wonderful, it’s great, there needs to be supportive service networks that can help reach those seniors who maybe have not the best literacy and digital resources, are not able to access internet. I seen a lot of commercials of different mobile companies promoting free internet, and they’re giving out discounts for internet providers so that people can access internet. Because if people can’t access a social network or access the internet, then they’re going to be really isolated. But we are trying to promote that social distancing does not mean isolation. We’re trying to find creative resources to keep seniors vibrant, engaged, and just provide that companionship and emotional support for those who are in isolation. So this could be, you know, encouraging younger relatives to call, versus try to FaceTime. If they don’t know how, in other ways to sort of combat this social isolation and do that, you know, peer-to-peer community building, get in touch with your neighbor, trying to find ways to re-engage this population that didn’t have these resources years ago.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:41

So what would be your recommendation, for instance, the group that you’re responsible for in your role at UCLA, the retirees? How would you reach out to people maybe that you didn’t even know before this pandemic?


Ayesha Dixon  09:56

So a few things we’ve done. We’ve completely redone our website to have “Connecting During COVID.” It’s a list of different resources to help people find early opening grocery hours, to find meal delivery programs, to figure out how to work Zoom. We created a whole Zoom tutorial so people could access it. And then a simple thing we did was we created this program called TeleBruin, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a phone pilot initiative we started to connect retirees to other retirees by just giving a simple phone call. So everyone got paired up, and John might call Mary, and then Mary will call Sue. And it’s just, you know, completely, a friendly, hey, how are you, tell me about your time at UCLA. And it’s just a way for people to connect over the phone, which for a lot of times our population, they’re more comfortable making a phone call than maybe younger generations with text. So having a phone call of just checking in is definitely a way to kind of help the mental health and the the emotional need that people can reestablish connections that maybe they didn’t have before.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  11:08

So that sounds like some thing that people could replicate in other organizations and other universities. That’s a really simple, low-tech, low-cost kind of way to connect to people and really addresses unintended consequences, where, as you say, social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. Also, your website that you just mentioned, is that accessible to other people outside of UCLA that they could go on and find out about the Zoom things like that?


Ayesha Dixon  11:34

Absolutely. Our website is public, it’s errc.ucla.edu. It does have a lot of content pertaining to just UCLA retirees, but this “Connecting During COVID” can be utilized by anyone. A lot of it’s hyper focused on L.A. and Southern California and the resources from Ventura County down to Orange County. But a lot of the things are universal. What this means for the state of California, for our UC retirees who are concerned about their pension, a lot of things are definitely focused for a lot of other retirees. And we designed it based on those elders who maybe their only way of contact was going to a daycare center in the afternoon, or community center. And a lot of retirees, you know, their only engagement was a faith-based worship center. And now that all of those are closed, how can they still connect to what they’ve always loved, and some may not have these robust family networks or friends, and they feel the most isolated. So we were really trying to find digital resources, whether it’s music performance, or your local Meals-on-Wheels that’s delivering, just to kind of have it all in one place. Because there’s a lot of information coming out daily, and we were trying to just be concise and have it all in one location.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  13:01

That’s terrific. I really am grateful for you for doing that. I’m going to make sure that everyone knows about that in my network. Having thought a lot about some of the suggestions that you just made and others have in terms of trying to keep connections not just for people in the older population but in general, many of these sort of standout for all of us. I was thinking, using the observation of my 91-year-old father. When my mom passed away in November, we noticed that he was mostly sad and missed her lot at mealtime. And mealtime, of course, we know is a very important time for all age groups to sit around and talk. And so I was thinking that could be also a suggestion even if you’re not on Zoom. If you just are on the phone, if you’re using mealtime to talk to your loved one at mealtime might really enhance somebody’s well-being and then they can go on their merry way in between mealtimes. The other thing was music. You know, we have a podcast about music and how it really enhances your well-being through the limbic system. And I know the research that Oliver Sacks and others have done around music in the neurological system and how it promotes healing, it’s considered to be very soothing and actually promotes improved neurological function with people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and so forth. But also, playing music that you are familiar with, like that you grew up with, also enhances the well-being of older folks. So what other things would you give like those sort of tips that you would give people to help their family members or themselves?


Ayesha Dixon  14:40

So I think, thinking of where we are in the middle of COVID-19, and I heard it mentioned on TV, that this is not only an economic recession, it could also be a social recession. A lot of people are dealing with not having the connections that they used to have and you know, the collapse in social contact is going to be ongoing for a few years. People may not ever feel comfortable getting in large groups again. So we’re really trying to support new and existing channels of that peer-to-peer community-building by thinking of music, thinking of art, and even meditation. There’s so much stuff in the news every day, every hour. And we’ve been telling folks, you know, if you must watch the news, maybe once in the morning or once in the afternoon, just to give yourself some relief from all the stress that’s going on in the world. And we’re promoting a lot of art that’s for stay-at-home, the different music that people can watch, L.A. opera and the Met, and just providing other opportunities so that they can live on a day-to-day basis with having art. Art and music are definitely two programs and resources that bring together a lot of people. Music is one thing that people can think of, and it just transports them to a moment in time from their childhood or their midlife, to a moment where they were happy, or a really good memory of a loved one and family member. So we’re doing a lot of encouraging of people to seek out different music venues, check out the online concerts, and to play music just so that you can have something that’s not the news because it can be very, very intense to watch it all day.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  16:22

That is true. We give a lot of advice about the news diet. That’s important. You know, I think routines has been a really important theme throughout our podcast in terms of what people should be doing. And I was thinking about that routine that helps people cope and I was getting back to the family meals. I feel that, or mealtime in general, that there’s so many rituals and routines that you can keep that are associated with mealtime. And it’s almost like an opportunity to share from our older population to share the the traditions of their own rituals around food with others. So what would you leave our listeners with in terms of advice, or what you think the pearls of wisdom would be in your profession for the older population, and those people who are caring for the older population?


Ayesha Dixon  17:17

I think, you know, speaking in reality terms, the effects of loneliness can be overwhelming. The elderly are already dealing with a lot of other health factors and risk factors. So if the smallest communication can be a phone call, or teaching them FaceTime, or a text message, to just in the meantime, keeping them engaged and keeping that social interaction. The longer we have social distancing, the bigger impact isolation will be. It’ll be that much harder to reestablish those connections. So the connections are ongoing throughout this time, whether it’s once a week, twice a week. I’ve always had in my calendar, I always call my grandmother at three o’clock on Sundays, and now it’s becoming twice a week. But because we want to keep their physical environment safe and healthy, and offer those supportive services that can make sure we have this. I always call it an age-positive narrative so that way, we can focus on the positive parts of aging and longevity, and doing things that we can do now, and be able to have our retirees start exploring things they maybe never would have in the past. So it’s definitely a small step to address isolation. But it’s substantial to people who have never had an iPad before, or have never known what Facebook was, or Twitter, or Zoom. And these are the very small things that we could, you know, start. This might be a whole new, exciting venture for someone who’s never been on Facebook, and now they have time to learn the application. And it’ll definitely be able to help people to combat any sort of fear they have with social distancing, and not being able to see their friends and loved ones.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  19:08

Ayesha, these wisdoms are really, really helpful. And we’re so lucky to have you at UCLA. It’s a work that you’ve been doing for years, but now it’s probably accelerated to a very high point. But thank heavens someone with your experience and and expertise is guiding our retirees and and others in our community. And so thank you for all you do.


Ayesha Dixon  19:35

Yeah, it’s been a great experience at UCLA and working with our retirees and seeing how this position has evolved and can evolve. We’re working with possibly getting a Twitter account so we can send out updates regularly. And if we get that set up, it’ll just be another channel where we can reach out to folks because now they’re going to be Twitter experts. I mean, we’re going to be learning everything in real time. So this position has always been working with seniors who are very heavily reliant on paper and telephone calls and faxes. And this is a new genre for them, having to email ,and send a text, or use Zoom. If I’d known years ago, Zoom is going to be what it is now, maybe we all should have bought stock in Zoom. So it’s definitely a new horizon. It’s very exciting to re engage with our seniors who, at UCLA, our senior population ranges from 55 to 103. So, we have a gamut of everyone who is on technology and their grandkids help put them on, to people who don’t even own a computer. So we’re trying to make sure we can reach out to people as much as we can during this really, really difficult, stressful, I keep hearing unprecedented a lot but which it is, it’s a very surreal time to live in 2020. Who would have thought this is where we will be in March and April?


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:07

Well, thank you so much, Ayesha, again, and look forward to working with you virtually and then in real life, I suppose.


Ayesha Dixon  21:18

Absolutely. Take care, you too.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:22

Thank you for tuning in to Six Feet Apart, a special series of the Live Well Podcast. Today’s episode was brought to you by UCLA’s Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. To stay up to date with the rest of the episodes in this special series, and to get more information on maintaining your mental, social, and physical well-being during COVID-19, please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcasts. Thank you and stay remote.

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