Dialogue Society revamps senior outreach

Student smiling with senior citizens
Colin Hayashi, a doctoral student studying dentistry, joined on a Dialogue Society visit to a nursing facility. (Photo courtesy of Saba Doustmohammadi)

The student-led Dialogue Society, a club centered on promoting wellness in communities founded in 1997 with chapters at UC Irvine and UCLA, welcomed its newest chapter at USC early last year. By then, the coronavirus pandemic was nearing its first anniversary; older adults, especially those in nursing facilities, were among the most vulnerable, and thus were forcibly isolated from others to prevent exposure to the virus. 

Until vaccines were approved and widely administered, the California Department of Public Health only allowed a designated “support person” to visit older adults in nursing facilities when deemed medically necessary. 

Saba Doustmohammadi, a 2022 graduate from the USC Keck School of Medicine with a master’s degree in public health, said she recognized a “great need” for senior outreach, given these restrictions and staff shortages in nursing facilities.

“We had many, many challenges: reaching the [older adult] population, keeping them engaged — especially with technology being a weak point for our seniors,” Doustmohammadi said. “There was nobody that could really help everyone stay engaged, especially for the seniors that had to be completely isolated for much longer than everyone else was.”

Doustmohammadi had been involved with the UCLA chapter’s Senior Outreach Program; when she graduated from UCLA and began pursuing her master’s degree at USC, she decided to continue her work. She cofounded the USC chapter in the fall of 2021 with Yasmin Borhani, a graduate from the Rossier School of Education with a master’s degree in education. Borhani was previously the president of the UCI chapter.

“Different chapters have different focuses; for us, we really wanted it to be around the health and wellness of our seniors as well as our members,” said Doustmohammadi, who is now the president of the USC chapter.

What began as a small club supporting, and supported by, its sister chapters gradually developed into the separate but still collaborative, group it is today.

“We got to a point where it wasn’t [them supporting us],” Doustmohammadi said. “Now we’re supporting UCLA, for example, connecting them with some centers that we connected with … We’ve come a long way.”

So far, the USC chapter has held storytelling sessions, astronomy presentations, oral health workshops — in partnership with the ORBIT Club at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry — and donation drives — in partnership with the USC Advocates for Healthy Aging — at centers throughout Los Angeles, including Belmont Village and The Piedmont Senior Apartments. 

Lexi Jiao, the social coordinator of the USC chapter and a 2022 graduate with a master’s degree in aging services management, said the oral health workshop was her favorite event. 

“It was a good opportunity [for] potential dental students to show people how to take care of their oral hygiene,” Jiao said. “Everybody liked it and ORBIT prepared a little gift for the [older adults] and they really liked it. So it was really sweet.”

Events did not come without challenges, however. Jiao recalled one such example at a Storytelling session:

“There was this one [older adult] that might have been a little sensitive, but that’s really normal when you’re getting older,” Jiao said. “She wasn’t really comfortable with the questions we asked like, ‘What is your favorite book?’ I mean, it’s totally just like a normal question, but not her … Just different personalities and stuff. So that was one of our challenges, and we have her feedback that we will definitely think about, [as to] how we change our questions in the future.”

Regardless, events had net positive impacts on both members and seniors, said Misa Belser, vice president of the USC chapter, who graduated from UCLA majoring in molecular, cell and developmental biology.

“One of the main things we hear from the seniors is just being able to talk to us and to see our faces and to interact with us — that makes a huge difference in their lives,” Belser said. “Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a lot of isolation and feelings of loneliness, especially within the senior community. So I think our events do a lot to combat that, and to help them feel more socially connected.”

Doustmohammadi also noted the positive feedback she received from older adults.

“Our seniors love us,” Doustmohammadi said. “We’ve had people come on and say it’s been the highlight of their week … Mid-event, [people are] like, ‘Okay, when is the next time you’re coming back?’ So it’s been well received, everything we’ve put together, whether it be online or in person.”

Belser said the chapter is planning new events to host in the upcoming semester, including nutrition workshops, music-related events and storytelling sessions held in other languages.

“This summer, we’re focusing more on holding more socials for our members,” Belser said. “It’s mostly just a time for us to destress and relax together. But we will spend some time planning our future events so that, when the academic year starts again, we will be prepared.”