$3.6M NIH Grant Funds Center for Social Ties and Aging Research

Jan. 8, 2020
caregiver for older adult

Caring for a family member with dementia creates both challenges and opportunities for families. Strong social connections can help caregivers manage the challenges, but the demands of caregiving sometimes create obstacles to social connections. When this happens, caregivers may experience social isolation and loneliness, adding to stress, low quality of life, and increased risk for poor health.

A new center at the University of Rochester is bringing together researchers to find new and innovative ways to promote social connectedness and the overall health of older adults caring for a loved one with dementia.

The Roybal Center for Social Ties and Aging Research (STAR), a joint initiative between the UR School of Nursing and the Department of Psychiatry, is funded by a $3.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The center will focus on fostering collaboration among researchers to make a significant impact on the problem of social disconnection in older caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease and other related dementias (ADRD). Its major activity will be funding pilot studies through its annual Pilot Award Program. Requests for proposals will be announced in the next several months.

“We are thrilled to be launching a center committed to the well-being of caregivers,” said Kathi Heffner, PhD, an associate professor of nursing, psychiatry, and medicine, who is co-principal investigator on the center grant. “We hope it enriches our already strong collaborations in aging research and, through the pilot program, brings more University of Rochester investigators into aging research.”

Heffner will co-direct the center with Kimberly Van Orden, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and co-principal investigator on the center grant. The STAR Center builds on a growing foundation of aging research at the UR Medical Center (URMC). Heffner is also the associate chief of research for the URMC Division of Geriatrics and Aging in the Department of Medicine.

The long-term effects of caregiving on caregivers’ health are well-established. Caregivers also face numerous and dynamic barriers to connectedness and thus are vulnerable to social isolation, poor quality-relations, and loneliness. “Social disconnectedness is a critical determinant and indicator of health and well-being,” said Van Orden. “Yet, the science of developing, testing, and deploying interventions to promote connectedness is still in its infancy.”

A goal of the STAR Center is to grow collaborations and foster new approaches to ensuring social connectedness in caregivers. To that end, STAR Center leadership will encourage investigators new to social connectedness research to apply their expertise to the area and those who study social connectedness to apply their expertise to caregiver health.

Because there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to connectedness among caregivers, the STAR Center will aim to develop behavioral interventions that help caregivers overcome the specific barriers to social connectedness that are unique to their personal circumstances. 

Two pilot studies were funded as part of the NIH grant. The first, led by the School of Nursing’s Associate Dean for Research Sally Norton, PhD, RN, FNAP, FPCN, FAAN, is geared to helping caregivers gain an understanding of connectedness, identifying their personal barriers to it, and finding local resources to help them stay connected. Marsha Wittink, MD, MBE, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, is a co-investigator on the pilot. The second pilot study, led by Van Orden, uses psychotherapy as a second-level approach for caregivers who did not successfully engage with the connectedness education alone. Three early career investigators in Psychiatry with interests in interventions for older adults are co-investigators on the pilot: Caroline Silva, PhD, Emily Bower, PhD, and Julie Lutz, PhD.

Co-investigators serving additional leadership roles in the STAR Center include Norton and Feng (Vankee) Lin, PhD, RN, from the School of Nursing, and Benjamin Chapman, PhD, MPH, Yeates Conwell, MD, and Carol Podgorski, PhD, MPH, MS, from the Department of Psychiatry.