Members of the WHICAP research group pose together.

VP&S Research Group Pivots to Provide for Community Elders

When non-essential operations were shut down last March, a VP&S research group became a critical lifeline for community elders in Northern Manhattan.

The Washington Heights-Hamilton Heights-Inwood Columbia Aging Project (WHICAP) is a research study on aging and memory led by principal investigator Richard P. Mayeux, MD, chair of neurology at VP&S, through the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center. Since 1992, the project has followed community elders residing in Northern Manhattan to uncover factors—such as sleep, diet, medical conditions, mood, and physical activity—that contribute to the aging process and dementia.

Over time, WHICAP has cultivated trust and longstanding relationships with more than a thousand community elders, who are routinely visited by WHICAP researchers. When COVID-19 arrived in New York City, those relationships became a lifeline for many.

“As soon as we went from in-person visits to remote contact, we knew the kind of calls and conversations that were ahead of us,” recalls Danurys “Didi” Sanchez, senior research staff associate in the Sergievsky Center and a program leader for WHICAP. “There were going to be more pressing needs, different needs, and we got ready right away.”

“We knew that this is a vulnerable population, especially during a pandemic,” says Joanna Fitzgibbons, MS, a WHICAP recruitment coordinator and an alumnus of the Mailman School of Public Health. “We needed to be ready with resources because we knew they would seek us out for help.”

In response, the WHICAP team quickly created a resource list and began contacting participants by phone. “For many of our elders, we were like a lifeline call,” Fitzgibbons says. “We made it clear at the beginning of every conversation: Before we get to talking about your involvement in the research study, do you need anything? You come first.”

Members of the WHICAP research group pose together.

WHICAP team members in 2019. Back row: Danurys "Didi" Sanchez, Erica Amarante, Luis Abreu, Kristina Nieves Quinones, Douglas Mendez Front row: Michelle Perala, Massiel Benitez, Joanna Fitzgibbons, Juliet Beato, Ferviany Almonte

Many participants stayed home, isolated from others, and were afraid to meet basic needs by grocery shopping and doing laundry. For some, WHICAP was their only way to connect with community organizations.

WHICAP has cultivated a long list of connections within community groups; these groups connected WHICAP participants with everything from grocery delivery and rent assistance to legal help and laundry service.

One participant who feared contracting COVID-19 at the laundromat had not done laundry for months. WHICAP connected her to a local mutual aid organization for assistance.

“We’ve always done this sort of work, but it ramped up and became more critical than ever as soon as the pandemic started. We became a crucial liaison between these community organizations and a community in need,” Sanchez says. 

Recently, WHICAP partnered with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital to schedule vaccine appointments  for community elders. “We were able to help our elders—many of whom are not technologically savvy—bypass online scheduling and schedule appointments over the phone,” Sanchez says. “NYP has been very helpful working with us and the Office of Government and Community Affairs.”

Since the pandemic began, WHICAP has conducted over 500 remote visits via telephone or video conference. The community has responded with gratitude. “With the number of blessings we get from our participants, I think I might live to be 100,” Sanchez says. “Whether we’re coordinating grocery deliveries or scheduling vaccine appointments, they are so thankful.”

WHICAP has served as a model for other Columbia research groups. The group’s work is ongoing, and illustrates how research groups can help local and city institutions identify community needs that may be otherwise hidden.

“These participants make meaningful contributions to science and the health of future generations,” Sanchez says. “In return, it’s been extremely gratifying for all of us to help improve their lives right now. That is what community partnership is all about.” 


Richard Mayeux, MD, is the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Professor of Neurology, Psychiatry and Epidemiology and chair of the Department of Neurology at VP&S, and Neurologist-in-Chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/CUIMC. Dr. Mayeux is also director of the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center, a center devoted to the epidemiologic investigation of neurological diseases, and co-director of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain at CUIMC.