BIDDEFORD — The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a host of challenges to daily living, especially for older adults. Among the challenges: difficulties for seniors in sourcing healthy food due to stay-at-home orders and guidance to avoid public spaces; forced isolation; and reduced opportunities for socialization.

Even family mealtimes became distanced and often solitary affairs.

Maine’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed) nutrition educators, housed in the Center for Excellence in Public Health at the University of New England, found new ways to connect with older adults during the pandemic. These innovations will now be put to the test as UNE pilots an innovative nutrition education program for seniors in low-income housing with the support of a three-year, $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Community Living (ACL).

The project is led by Michele Polacsek, Ph.D., M.H.S., director of the Center for Excellence in Public Health (CEPH) and principal investigator, and co-investigators Tom Meuser, Ph.D., director of UNE’s Center for Excellence in Aging and Health (CEAH), and Mary DeSilva Sc.D., M.S., M.S.F.S., associate research professor of public health, in partnership with Westbrook Housing Authority (WHA) and the Southern Maine Agency on Aging.

The collaborative, cross-university effort will see the implementation and evaluation of the impact of an innovative, pandemic-responsive nutrition education program, “Enhanced-10 Tips for Adults (e-TTA),” that addresses food security, socialization, and perceived health and wellbeing of residents across WHA’s 15 low-income senior housing properties.

Products will comprise a toolkit with step-by-step instructions for implementing the e-TTA in print and electronic versions; a nutrition educator webinar training program; a website for dissemination of findings and resources; annual conference presentations and peer-reviewed publications; and one end-of-project stakeholder conference focused on state and regional dissemination.

Unique to the project is its delivery, in which nutrition educators will tune into a classroom of seniors remotely. Instructors will virtually instruct classrooms of WHA residents from the learning center at WHA’s Larrabee Woods campus — where UNE already operates a Wellness Center that provides dental hygiene services to residents free of charge, among other health services — to promote socialization among residents while maintaining distance from outside visitors.

One strength of the program, Polacsek said, is an incorporated research component in which UNE’s project leaders will measure changes in individuals’ knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and health behaviors to evaluate the effectiveness of the approach.

“This is an innovative way to deliver valuable health information to low-income populations,” Polacsek remarked. “Results from this pilot study will inform best practices for future health collaborations and research partnerships.”

Students from health professions programs across UNE will be involved hands-on in the program; they will be available to support residents with their needs, such as shopping, food delivery, and meal planning, as well as provide technological assistance as residents make their way through the program.

“The nutrition education program is just one of a host of efforts we’re making to serve this community,” Meuser said. “The students involved may be trained to specifically support this project, but I see them being integrated beyond the project, so there’s a broader support environment that we’ll be able to provide.”

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