Technologies to Help Vulnerable Seniors Stay Connected During a Pandemic

April 3, 2020 Health Ideas Staff

Keeping connected is one of the most important things we can do to care for ourselves and our loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic, but with social distancing and isolation protocols in place, it can also be one of the most challenging.

Since before isolation became the buzzword du jour in the age of coronavirus, healthcare professionals and researchers alike have been working to curb what is largely considered an epidemic in itself — one with as serious a health impact as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. Particularly for older adults, loneliness has been linked to poor health outcomes, including, in some circumstances, an increased risk of mortality.

Although we are right to be concerned about the health consequences of current separation measures, there are a number of tools at our fingertips that we can leverage to help connect vulnerable seniors with resources, information and support during this challenging time.

Smart Devices That Help (Not Hinder)

A challenge with some of today’s “smart” solutions is that the population most suited to benefit from the technology during a crisis may also be the least tech-savvy. Devices designed specifically for older adults, such as the GrandPad tablet, allow seniors to connect with family and friends through a user-friendly interface. Smart displays and easy-to-summon voice assistants provide a simple way to access information, organize daily tasks and connect with help in the case of an emergency. And as one study suggests, voice assistants may also serve as digital companions, helping to actually reduce feelings of loneliness.

In adopting some of these technologies, it’s important to have the wireless infrastructure in place to provide consistent and reliable access. Installing a whole-home or mesh Wi-Fi system can help ensure a stable wireless connection from all areas of the home.

Accessing Relevant News & Information

Staying informed is paramount in this time of uncertainty; however, there’s a fine line between need-to-know and information overload. Limiting news and information apps to a few reliable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local news and public health apps, can help cut through the noise. Check state and local health department sites for relevant mobile health apps, and encourage opting in to COVID-19-related alerts from local officials for important updates on the virus and available resources.

Keeping Active at Home

While the outdoors aren’t completely off limits — at least not at the time of writing — the general recommendation is to #stayhome as much as possible until the spread of COVID-19 subsides. Without veering into the physical and mental health toll being deprived of nature can take, we fortunately live in a time when on-demand fitness solutions abound, many of which are — or can be — tailored to older adults. A YouTube search for “senior exercises at home” yields innumerable results, and fitness apps such as the J&J Official 7-Minute Workout offer several home-friendly workouts across various fitness levels. The SilverSneakers program, available through participating Medicare programs, currently offers more than 200 on-demand workout videos that can be completed at home.

Food Delivery Apps

Meals on Wheels America is working to ramp up its capacity, donorship and lobbying efforts amid the COVID-19 crisis to ensure continuity of service for the vulnerable populations it serves; however, like so many community-based organizations on the front lines of this pandemic, resources are strained.

Millennial-favorite food delivery apps like GrubhubDoorDash and Uber Eats are serving a wider population as restaurants look to alternative revenue channels in light of nationwide dine-in restrictions, and consumers seek to limit time spent in public. With the proper precautions, these apps can provide quick, convenient and safe access to meals without having to leave the house — a potentially valuable solution for homebound seniors.

Virtual Care & Medication Management

To help curb the spread of COVID-19 and protect vulnerable seniors, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced a considerable expansion of telehealth services covered by Medicare to include virtual office visits, mental health counseling and preventive health screenings. As part of the expansion, the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR) relaxed HIPAA guidelines around the use of video chat applications, such as FaceTime, Skype and Google Hangouts, to help facilitate the delivery of virtual care.

Medication reminder and tracking tools can help ensure adherence to prescription and over-the-counter medicines while isolation measures are in place. (In the case of a pandemic or natural disaster, the CDC recommends having a seven to 10-day emergency supply of medication on hand.)

Technology to Connect — with Care, Support & Loved Ones

Ultimately, there is no replacement for face-to-face interaction; technology has merely made it possible to replicate the sentiment — and right now, it’s the best we’ve got. Use this opportunity to connect with older loved ones and, in so doing, acclimate them with virtual communication tools that can also serve as lifelines during the COVID-19 pandemic. And if there is any positive to come from this current crisis, perhaps it’s that we will all make better use of technology to stay in touch with our loved ones who may be cities, states or oceans apart.

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