I Ola Lāhui’s ‘Ōlinolino Program Shines for Kūpuna and Their Caregivers

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Too many kūpuna believe that their lives are only meaningful when they’re productive; that they are only useful when they are physically working. So, when they can no longer do the things they used to do, some kūpuna begin to think that they are pau with life.

Dr. Aukahi Austin Seabury, Executive Director of I Ola Lāhui, believes otherwise.

“If you think you don’t have purpose you go down fast,” said Austin Seabury, a Clinical Psychologist. “We try to help kūpuna see their lives differently.”

Since 2007, I Ola Lāhui has been providing cultural-minded mental health services to Native Hawaiians, primarily in underserved rural communities. Over the years they have partnered successfully with more than 20 health care clinics and elder care facilities across the pae ʻāina. I Ola Lāhui has always provided services to people of all ages, but about five years ago, the team identified a service gap: kūpuna and their caregivers.

“Sometimes people are surprised about the focus on caregivers. But caregivers can actually end up in worse health than the people they care for because they tend to neglect themselves,” explained Austin Seabury.

She notes that the trend is moving towards kūpuna aging in place, with family members caregiving for their kupuna, which can put a lot of stress on the family as tūtū’s capabilities decline. “Most primary caregivers are a decade or so away from being kūpuna themselves.

“If we want strong, resilient kūpuna, we have to take care of their caregivers. If caregivers are well, kūpuna abuse and neglect decreases, and fewer kūpuna are abandoned to the system.”

With this in mind, I Ola Lāhui’s new ʻŌlinolino program is uniquely designed to address the needs of both kūpuna and their caregivers. Funded by a community grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the program offers everything from mental health services and practical workshops to culture-based activities, exercise classes and social events – all tailored to meet the needs of kūpuna and caregivers alike.

Like most Hawaiian names, ʻŌlinolino has a double meaning. “It literally means ʻshiny and bright’ which is how we want kūpuna to feel when they’re part of our program; we want them to glow, to feel lit up. But the name is also a subtle hint to their shiny silver hair,” Austin Seabury smiled.

As ʻŌlinolino developed, I Ola Lāhui looked for partners with a similar mission and connected with Lunalilo Home. “Because of their unique position in East Honolulu, and because our lāhui already uses them as a source for advice about caring for kūpuna who are aging in place, we knew they were a natural partner,” said Austin Seabury.

She added that the ʻŌlinolino program will serve the Honolulu area through Koʻolaupoko (Waimānalo to Kāneʻohe), in part because I Ola Lāhui has partnered for several years with the Waimānalo Health Center and this allowed them to leverage their community connections.

“Our idea was not to create something new, but instead to strengthen existing community resources and invigorate the community,” shared Austin Seabury.

For many kūpuna, even those living with ʻohana, isolation can be a big issue, so in addition to offering individual behavioral health services to those who need the support, ʻŌlinolino features hands-on social activities because reducing isolation helps to reduce depression. Especially effective have been activities that focus on cultural practices. “Participating in cultural activities helps them access their spiritual side and connect in ways that make them resilient to the changes and challenges that come with age,” Austin Seabury reflected.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced I Ola Lāhui to change their delivery, if not their program. For example, before COVID-19, they had garden days once a month at Lunalilo Home which combined the physical activity of gardening with learning about native food plants and their cultural uses. Because gathering together is no longer safe, I Ola Lāhui is planning to launch a Zoom class this fall to teach kūpuna how to grow their own veggies, even if they are living in an apartment.

“Staying connected to the ʻāina is important,” Austin Seabury said. “Even if you’re stuck at home because of COVID, go outside for a minute. Let the sun touch your face. Feel the wind blow. Touch an element – anything – rain, wind, soil, sunlight. Pick one. Something as simple as that. It’s aloha ʻāina – cultural health – but it’s also mental health.”

According to Austin Seabury, the transition from in-person to Zoom was surprisingly smooth. “It’s a real blessing that we started before COVID came because the kūpuna in the program already knew us – we had pilina (relationship), so they were willing to take the leap with us online.”

To equip program participants, there were Zoom practice sessions until everyone felt comfortable. Online activities include lei-making – everyone gathers whatever they have at home – and work on their lei together via Zoom. And they’ve hosted Kūpuna Chat events with topics like “kids today” or “the good old days,” which was definitely a favorite topic. “We couldn’t get them off Zoom on that one,” laughed Austin Seabury, “they love to talk about the ʻgood old days!’”

Another favorite was a Family Tree Exercise where everyone worked together on their moʻokūʻauhau (genealogy). They are also providing online exercise classes that include yoga, gentle-impact fitness, and a hula class that Austin Seabury teaches on Tuesdays. “I try to pick playful songs that are really nostalgic, like Kaimana Hila, and talk about the real meaning behind the song.”

In addition to the fun, social activities, ʻŌlinolino offers workshops and presentations on things like hospice care, making a will, and preventing falls. And, not surprisingly, since the pandemic began, the demand for behavioral health services has increased. From April through July there were 172 individual appointments with program participants, most of which were online. The program has also been providing practical things, like hygiene supplies, to kūpuna who are unable, or afraid, to leave their homes.

The OHA grant for the ʻŌlinolino program helps pay for everything from staffing to hygiene supplies. “Our grant specialist worked with us once we realized we would need to re-budget due to the pandemic,” said Austin Seabury. “All parts of the program are OHA supported.”

So far, I Ola Lāhui has served about 75 Native Hawaiian kūpuna and their caregivers via the ʻŌlinolino program. According to Austin Seabury, the fact that people have been using all of the program services has been validating. “All the things we thought they would like, they valued. But we have the capacity for more. We assumed we would get 100 participants a year – and we’re on track for that – but we’re certainly open to more! We could double that right now and be fine.”