First-semester nursing students at Washington State University spent nine weeks caring for patients in nursing homes and assisted living facilities before the coronavirus pandemic hit and ended those clinical experiences.

But WSU nursing faculty quickly and creatively came up with an alternative, one that has been valuable enough that it may be folded into the program even after COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed.

Students are calling homebound older adults twice a week to talk. They ask the seniors if they need anything, how they’re handling isolation, how their pets are doing, and whether they’ve returned their census form. They ask about friends, family, memories, travel – just about any topic at all.

“I’ve been able to have great connections with people, calling them twice a week,” said nursing student Maria Estock. “I think it fills an actual need. This is a way in this crazy time that we can still make a difference in people’s lives.”

Several faculty members had the idea for the telephone outreach as it became clear students wouldn’t be able to return to their clinical sites after spring break. The WSU College of Nursing and other programs took that step to conserve resources and safeguard the health of students and patients.

The instructors got in touch with Aging and Long-Term Care of Eastern Washington, which provided a list of about 300 of the nonprofit agency’s clients. Each student was given a handful of those names to call.

“They’ve had a lot of hang-ups; some people are suspicious of any person calling them,” said Senior Instructor Sue McFadden. “But everyone has had at least one or two people who have really needed the connection.”

Students have a few guidelines: HIPAA privacy rules still apply, don’t make promises you can’t keep, and “be bold – know it’s OK to ask personal questions, because that’s what nurses do,” McFadden said.

Some people tell the students they’re having trouble getting groceries, or paying bills. In those cases the students connect the seniors back to Aging and Long-Term Care of Eastern Washington. Others talk about their feelings.

Nursing student Karina Lees said one woman confided she was afraid of COVID-19 because she remembered her grandmother’s stories about losing her mother in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Another woman, who’s 94, told Lees that a neighbor checked in on her, but she was happy to hear someone’s voice.

“It kind of broke my heart,” Lees said.

Students are also asked to identify people in their own circles who might need a connection and contact them, too.

Lees said people her age are new to the isolation wrought by the pandemic, but that’s not the case for many elders, and that’s an important lesson for a nursing student to learn.

“As nurses we need to not only address the physical needs of our patients, but also the emotional and psychological side,” Lees said.

Senior Instructor Lori Parisot said students are assessing, referring for care, and reassessing, which is a typical nursing process.

The experiment has worked so well that Parisot said it could continue.

“Those well checks are important all the time, but especially now,” she said. “Students are helping these elders not be as lonely and feeling like nobody cares about them. And caring is an integral part of nursing.”