Collaboration Prevents Elder Abuse, Tackles Pandemic-Related Isolation and Loneliness, and Brings Care and Compassion to Neighborhood’s Solitary Elders
HOUSTON, TX – Realizing the pandemic might be “old news” for healthy people, yet it continues to severely isolate medically vulnerable populations like senior citizens, CarePartners announced a new partnership today with UTHealth Houston and Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church to help older Third Ward residents living alone. Named after the Houston doctor who revolutionized the approach to geriatric healthcare across the country, the Carmel B. Dyer Second Family Program will help participants who are at risk of elder neglect, abuse, and exploitation due to their isolation. Outreach by trained volunteers within the Third Ward community and by Rice University students will include weekly telephone calls and/or in-person visits to individuals’ homes, as well as group education, social events, and respite care options for the participants’ family members/caretakers.
The program has already attracted a national funder: ElderAbuse.org, an advocacy and educational nonprofit, donated an initial $30,000 for the project and has pledged to match other donations dollar-for-dollar, up to an additional $50,000. Since all the program partners are nonprofit organizations, they rely on donations to fund their work in the community. Donations for the match can come from anywhere around the world and can be made at Elderabuse.org.
When COVID struck, many older Third Ward residents who live alone saw their risk for elder abuse increase substantially because of the compounding effect of social isolation, loneliness, and low or overburdened support networks. Therefore, the Second Family program model already pioneered by CarePartners is now expanding to include the Third Ward: trained volunteers will create a “second family” for those homebound individuals, offering ongoing support and companionship. Volunteers will also be trained to identify and respond to the signs and symptoms of elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation and will provide basic coaching and consultation to family caregivers, specifically regarding stress management and available resources.
Dr. Carmel Bitondo Dyer, who passed away in 2021 at only 62 years old, dedicated her life to making geriatric services accessible to all Houstonians, especially in under-resourced and under-served communities. She established geriatric clinics, home-visit programs, and elder mistreatment partnerships, and specifically in the Third Ward, she started the Baylor Geriatric Clinic inside Quentin Mease Hospital and ran it for 20 years. She also founded the Consortium on Aging and the Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. She served as a delegate to the 2005 White House Conference on Aging, and she testified twice before the U.S. Senate on behalf of vulnerable elders. Dr. Dyer was inspired by her fiercely independent Italian grandmother, a New York City seamstress who lived by herself to the age of 98.
“The pandemic reminded us how detrimental social isolation can be for older adults. This project provides isolated seniors an opportunity for connection, engagement, and access to resources,” said Andrea Williams, MPH, CarePartners’ director of the project. “We want to give older adults an extended family that will help reduce the risks of social isolation: depression, elder abuse, and physical and mental decline. And the program won’t just benefit them; it will also enhance our volunteers’ intergenerational connections and their sense of purpose.”
“Carmel’s service to older adults was boundless,” said Associate Professor Jason Burnett, PhD, Co-Director of the Texas Elder Abuse & Mistreatment Institute (TEAM) at UTHealth Houston and one of the Consortium on Aging leaders. “She embraced every opportunity to ensure that older adults, especially those in some of the most underrepresented areas in Houston, had a voice and a chance to live with purpose and dignity. That was the mission she lived!”
“My father, Dr. William A. Lawson (founder of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church), had a long and fruitful partnership with Dr. Dyer. They both had a passion for the seniors in the Third Ward community,” said Cheryl Lawson, a key member of the initiative’s advisory council. “Many of those seniors have been part of the Wheeler Avenue family for decades, and we’re concerned about their isolation and heightened risk for abuse and neglect, due to COVID. But through this collaboration, we can bring compassion and connection right into their homes. It’s a marvelous way to honor Dr. Dyer’s work in the Third Ward, and it’s only possible because of community partnerships and trust.”
“Dr. Dyer was a giant in the field of elder abuse identification and prevention – and a beloved colleague to many,” said Mark Lachs, MD, MPH, Chair, Elderabuse.org and Co-Chief, Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine. “On behalf of the board of Elderabuse.org, we are honored to support the launch of this program, which continues her commitment to serve and protect vulnerable older adults.”