COVID-19 created isolation restrictions that led to extreme loneliness, especially in seniors. But, some technologies can help ease the burden and allow us to connect with our loved ones safely.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1.5 million people are living in long-term and acute care environments in the United States. Millions more are alone in their homes.
With virtually all of them now facing isolation due to COVID-19, the potential psychological effects are profound. In the words of Marc Freedman, CEO of the nonprofit Encore.org, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, “We’ve had this global awakening about the detrimental impact of isolation, and now there’s this sudden imperative around social distancing.”
As a retired emergency room physician who now works as the National Healthcare Practice Leader for Centric Consulting, I am fascinated by technology’s potential to help our seniors in these challenging times. I believe workers in long-term care facilities can use the mobile devices they already have to help patients and their loved ones remain connected via information and communication technology (ICT) tools like Microsoft Teams during this unprecedented time.
And for older people isolated at home, a family’s modest investment (about $50) in a tool like the Amazon Echo, with its friendly virtual personality “Alexa,” can help older family members remember to take medication or go for a walk around the back yard.
I know our healthcare providers are under incredible stress at this time, and so are family members who have to balance caring for their own children at home with older family members isolated in their own homes. However, I believe emotional and psychological health are as critical as physical health. Finding ways to safely keep our seniors connected to the people who love them is time well spent.
Older people who are not in care facilities but at home have additional challenges, like remembering to take medication on time or simply being reminded occasionally to check in on their health. You can program Alexa to ask questions or prompt seniors—”It’s time for your medication, ” Time to do some exercise,” or “Have you weighed yourself today?” Alexa, Amazon Web Services’ artificial intelligence persona who “lives” inside its Amazon Echo smart speaker, can help.
Centric Principal Architect for National Technology Services Chris Martinez published a blog series about Alexa. Written in less stressful times, it explains how he learned to program his device to tell him what the surfing locations were in his area at any given time. As he explains, “[Alexa] operates in a similar fashion to the Apple Siri service. For example, I can say ‘Alexa, what is the weather like today?’ The main distinction between Alexa and Siri is that Alexa does not require an iPhone; anyone can walk up to Alexa and ask (her) a question. Technically, all you need to do is plug Alexa in, connect (her) to your wireless network, and start asking (her) questions.”
We can’t expect most seniors in long-term and acute care to program devices like Martinez did. Still, it’s easy to program Alexa for them with reminders or notifications to ask canned questions like, “Did you take your medicine today?” A new feature, Alexa Guard, will also listen for signs of a problem, like breaking glass, which could signal an urgent situation. Even Alexa’s friendly voice may help decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation. Add Alexa’s ability to provide meditation skills and mindfulness techniques, and you have a technology with real potential.
The next question: “How do I safely get my device into my loved one’s home?” If possible, talk to your family member to make sure they are comfortable with the idea first. If so, ask them what they would like help with, like which reminders they may need. You could then program it at your home, wipe it down carefully, and leave it in an agreed-upon location or coordinate delivery with an in-home care provider.
ICT and Microsoft Teams
Before COVID-19, numerous researchers were already studying the use of ICT—including, in one case, Skype, Microsoft’s precursor to Teams—to see if it is effective in combating loneliness for nursing home residents. In the Skype study, researchers Hsiu-Hsin Tsai and Yun-Fang Tsai used videoconferencing for three months with family members and nursing home residents in Taiwan.
They saw promising results: The researchers documented measurable positive differences in depressive symptoms and loneliness. Even more promising, when the researchers followed up six and twelve months later, the results persisted.
The challenge is that many older people may not be able to navigate even a relatively user-friendly tool like Microsoft Teams—or have access to the technology—to realize these benefits. But, many caregivers carry their phones with them throughout the day and could work with family members to facilitate video meetings.
The Next Frontier: Telehealth and Telemedicine with Teams
Facility workers could also use Teams to help patients meet with their doctors and other healthcare professionals, a marked advancement in the fields of telehealth and telemedicine. Teams is Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliant, and they already use it in healthcare. Further relaxation of privacy regulations will likely make it even more helpful for applications like diagnoses in the future.
Although COVID-19 is currently on the decline, we will see the next resurgence in the fall. Please make sure your loved ones continue to follow social distancing precautions. Listen to the physicians and scientists for the most up to date information on prevention. And, hug your loved ones every day if you can!