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UVa and local social organizations join in studies of seniors and children

The old and the young could benefit from nearly $80,000 in study grants recently approved by a National Institutes of Health organization of medical providers and universities, officials say.

The integrated Translational Health Research Institute of Virginia, known as iTHRIV, will support a partnership of the Jefferson Area Board of Aging and University of Virginia School of Architecture to see if a variety of nature-based activities improves seniors’ emotional, physical and cognitive health.

It will also fund a Legal Aid Justice Center program in Charlottesville with UVa Health to identify and reduce barriers that prevent noncitizen children from enrolling in Medicaid programs for which they qualify. It will also collect information on the children’s primary-care and emergency-room use.

“iTHRIV seeks opportunities to partner with the community to address health problems which are important to the people who live in Virginia,” Kristin Miller, iTHRIV partnership manager, said Wednesday, in a prepared statement.

The JABA study is the result of the pandemic’s impact on seniors. The organization will join with the architecture school’s Center of Design and Health to study whether nature-based activities can improve seniors’ health.

“Isolation, any amount of time, can negatively impact emotional, physical and cognitive health. The extreme social isolation created by COVID could exacerbate these risks,” said Marta Keane, of JABA.

Preliminary research has indicated that using green space and getting outdoors may increase social interactions in seniors, Keane said.

Jenny Roe, the design and health center’s director, agreed.

“We know that interacting with nature in gardens, in parks [and] in wilder settings, builds emotional, cognitive, physical and social wellbeing,” Roe said. “At a time when so many older people are suffering from lack of mobility and social isolation, our research will help identify what type of nature intervention works best for health and for whom.”

Roe said the study will include physical approaches such as nature walks, mental approaches such as being involved in environmental issues and nurturing approaches including gardening and growing plants.

The Legal Aid Justice Center’s officials became involved in the iTHRIV program after noticing that many noncitizen children legally eligible for Medicaid remain uninsured.

Michaela Lieberman, a staff attorney with the center, will partner with Dr. Dianne Pappas, a pediatrician at UVA Health. The goal is to identify and reduce common barriers to Medicaid enrollment and collect information on primary-care and emergency-room use.

“Honestly, we don’t really know how many of these children and families there are in our community or what the challenges and barriers are that keep them from accessing health care,” Pappas said. “The first step to improving access and health is to understand the community and the barriers that prevent them from successfully accessing the health care system.”

“This grant will ultimately ensure more Medicaid-eligible kids in Virginia get access to the critical healthcare services they may otherwise not be able to afford,” Lieberman said. “We see this funding opportunity as an important tool in capturing and reducing a source of health inequity in the commonwealth.”

iTHRIV is supported by the NIH and is a collaboration of UVa, Virginia Tech, Carilion Clinic and the Inova Health System.


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