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Nursing student partners with local agency to support seniors during pandemic

| Judy Berthiaume

Last spring, Karli Olsen and several other University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire nursing majors were ready to launch an educational series that they had created for health care professionals when COVID-19 upended their plans.

In the spring, Karli Olsen, who will graduate with her degree in nursing in December, worked with a local agency to call seniors who live in the Eau Claire area to check on them in the early months of the pandemic.

In the spring, Karli Olsen, who will graduate with her degree in nursing in December, worked with a local agency to call seniors who live in the Eau Claire area to check on them in the early months of the pandemic.

As everything — including their population health clinical and other UW-Eau Claire classes — moved online and health care professionals focused on the unfolding health crisis, the Blugolds knew they had to quickly adjust their project to reflect their new reality.

Instead of sharing information about dementia, the Blugolds worked with the Aging and Disability Resource Center to help the agency connect with its more than 300 clients to assess their needs during the pandemic.

“The students quickly pivoted when we learned ADRC was in need of assistance to conduct phone calls to assess clients’ food insecurity needs in the event the pandemic caused mass interruption of food delivery systems for senior meal delivery,” says their clinical instructor, Dr. Pamela Guthman, assistant professor of nursing. “This was a great intervention for helping students recognize how to use their professional nursing communication skills to assess food insecurity, while also interrupting the social isolation our seniors were feeling even early in the pandemic.

“They did a fantastic job, and they still learned many skills and competencies that we focus on in this clinical.”

After spending many hours creating their original educational series, shifting gears was challenging but necessary, Olsen says of the project.

Still, despite the difficult circumstances, the new project gave them an incredible learning experience in population health while also helping them meet an important community need, says Olsen, a native of Blue Earth, Minnesota, who is graduating this month with a degree in nursing.

“We had to learn to adapt quickly and focus on what was most important for our community at the time, which was assessing food insecurity, with the start of COVID,” Olsen says.

The best part of the experience was connecting with the seniors who receive Meals on Wheels, Olsen says.

“It was a way to break their social isolation and make a small impact on their day,” Olsen says of the calls. “Many times, we would spend 10-20 minutes on the phone with the seniors to let them talk about their struggles and concerns with COVID.

“The biggest struggle was learning to adapt to each of their situations. It was a great opportunity for us to learn how to communicate properly and therapeutically.”

Connecting with the seniors also was a good reminder that everyone should be checking in with their family members and friends to learn how COVID is impacting their life, Olsen says. The pandemic impacts people in different ways and the only way to know what others are facing is to ask them, she says.

For example, through her calls with the seniors she learned that if the Meals on Wheels program was discontinued for a time, many of them had no way of getting food, Olsen says. Without reaching out and asking those questions, no one might have known that was a concern, she says.

“We also discovered the social isolation they were in, and that conversation and connection is a vital aspect in their life,” Olsen says of the seniors she talked with as part of the project. “This experience will help me in my nursing career by recognizing that it is important to focus on all aspects of a patient in a holistic view.”

Olsen says she knew she wanted to be a nurse since she began working as a certified nursing assistant after high school.

“The ability to care for others became my passion and from there, I have not looked back,” Olsen says.

After she graduates, Olsen will begin her career as a registered nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota.

Interacting with seniors during the pandemic was just one of many experiences in and out of the classroom she found at UW-Eau Claire that she says has prepared her well for a career in health care.

A student athlete, Olsen competed on UW-Eau Claire’s track and field team. She also worked as a student building manager and recreation program assistant in the McPhee Olson Sports Recreation Complex.

“I have truly developed as a person through my years as a student here and feel the utmost prepared going into the nursing profession,” Olsen says. “I can't thank my professors enough for the constant support, knowledge, wisdom and encouragement they gave through the nursing program.”