As COVID-19 sweeps through countries around the world, concern has been mounting about how to keep older members of communities safe. In locations that were hit early on by Coronavirus, such as China, Italy, and Seattle, the statistics suggest that senior citizens are more likely to develop serious symptoms.
In the United States, maintaining the wellbeing of older individuals during the pandemic is front and center for the healthcare system, as well as for families. Consider the statistics:
To limit the spread of COVID-19, state and federal authorities have recommended “social distancing” for all demographic groups and especially for older individuals. This approach is certainly a prudent one. One side effect, however, may be social isolation for vulnerable elderly people.
In 2017, an AARP study found that social isolation among older adults resulted in approximately $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending each year. Hopefully, the current intensity of quarantines and social distancing won’t be sustained for a long period of time. But if it is, the economic impact of social isolation on the elderly may increase this year.
Combatting Social Isolation with “Whole Health” Outreach
Health plans can combat the negative effects of Coronavirus-related social isolation on older members by taking a “whole health” approach to outreach. Messaging can be delivered using whatever method members prefer, such as phone calls and voicemails, text messages, email, or direct mail.
A “whole health” approach to communication means providing older members with valuable information that includes and also goes beyond “traditional” medicine. For example:
- Offer practical tips and resources for increasing mobility. Daily exercise is a challenge for every age group now that many people are confined primarily to their homes. Regular movement is especially crucial for seniors. Gentle exercise is the key to maintaining mobility. Health plans may want to share links to free online chair exercises or email simple written exercise routines tailored to older individuals.
- Remind seniors to take their medications. Medication adherence is also essential for seniors. Social distancing has disrupted routines in many households. Older individuals may forget to take or renew prescriptions. Health plans may decide to leverage automation and artificial intelligence to remind older members about the importance of taking (and renewing) their medications and the role that plays in maintaining their health at this time.
- Warn members about fraud. Sadly, COVID-19 has resulted in various fraudulent cures and diagnostics, such as fake at-home Coronavirus test kits. Health plans can proactively warn seniors and advise them to stay away from medical advice and treatments that haven’t been sanctioned by their physician or health plan.
- Provide information about benefits. It’s natural that health plans will want to notify older members about their health benefits during the pandemic and how to get questions answered. Health plans also may want to provide seniors with information and resources about other government benefits. For instance, Social Security offices are now largely closed to the public. Older members may welcome information about what Social Security services are now available online and by phone.
- Share resources to address food insecurity. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, hunger and malnutrition were realities for as many as 5 million older adults. Quarantines, social distancing, and food shortages now threaten to expand the issue of food insecurity to larger numbers of seniors. Given the importance of nutrition to overall wellbeing, it makes sense for health plans to provide older members with links and phone numbers for community resources like Meals on Wheels and other food options that are available at this time.
Best Practices for Communicating with Older Members
As health plans develop outreach campaigns targeted at older members, it may be helpful to keep four best practices in mind:
- Reinforce the idea that social distance doesn’t have to mean social isolation. Taking precautions to safeguard health, like social distancing, is important. However, people can also take steps to avoid social isolation, such as talking with friends and relatives on the phone or on video calls.
- Provide information that helps people feel that they are in control of their lives. Everyone is being asked to take extraordinary measures at this time. Offering trustworthy, authoritative information – such as recommendations from the CDC or state/local health departments – can help people understand why they need to make certain choices to maintain their health.
- Keep information clear and easy to understand. Some older adults are hard of hearing, while others may have mild cognitive impairments due to dementia or other memory disorders. As a result, delivering information in clear and easily understandable ways is essential. It may be helpful to repeat the same information multiple times. Creating a pattern in the messaging makes it easier for people to remember the key points.
- Offer information in multiple languages. This is crucial in multi-cultural communities. Nationwide, for example, Hispanics represent a growing share of the 65 and older age group. Culturally adapted messaging is the key to conveying important messages effectively. “One-to-one” translations can result in confusing or incorrect information.
Some have warned that social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to a “social recession” characterized by isolation and loneliness. Older adults are certainly at risk, but this isn’t a reality that we simply must accept. Everyone can play a part in connecting with friends, neighbors, and family members in new ways. Health plans can also play an important role by reaching out to some of their most vulnerable members – our older residents.