Nov 16 2020

LeadingAge20: Easy Tech Strategies to Engage Isolated Seniors

Plugged-in senior care communities shared strategies and success stories with conference attendees.

Prior to the pandemic, many residents at Mercy Housing didn’t have the tools to go online from their rooms; later, onsite computer labs were closed due to COVID-19. These and other hurdles isolated low-income seniors served by the Denver nonprofit.

“They’re not seeing grandkids, friends and family,” Laura Andes, the organization’s senior vice president, told LeadingAge Annual Meeting Virtual Experience attendees Thursday. “They benefit the most from access to technology.”

This divide compelled Mercy leaders to obtain several funding sources, including an AARP grant, to buy Android tablets for its 127 properties in 16 states. Some tablets are designated to be checked out for a few days; others are for long-term use.

Several weeks later, the applications have proved to be diverse: Virtual bingo games, online church services and videos on fitness and crafting are among the popular options.

Still, “the No. 1 thing people want to learn how to do is Zoom calls,” Andes said. “After being isolated for months and months, they’re looking for that in-person connection.”

With a long winter ahead and social distancing measures set to continue, senior care providers must evaluate, test and deploy diverse technologies for older adults to communicate with the outside world — and with each other.

LeadingAge speakers addressed that need during several sessions last week.

Smart Tools Bring Comfort and Independence to Senior Care

Although one-third of people 65 and older do not use the internet, according to the Pew Research Center, technology isn’t frightening to many seniors.

In fact, consumers over 50 are helping fuel the demand for smart home technology, an AARP survey found in January — and half of respondents said they would prefer to have their healthcare needs managed by a mix of medical staff and healthcare technology.

At Cypress Village in Jacksonville, Fla., an infusion of tablets loaded with iN2L digital engagement software has reinvigorated residents and staff during lockdown. By playing games, using video chat and enjoying immersive experiences, residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can be engaged while keeping their distance from others.

“We have seen the use of the tablets potentially reduce the risk of falls and the need for medication by stimulating these residents,” Ty Morgan, the community’s executive director, said during a LeadingAge session. “It has created more productive staff interaction, and residents can easily interact with family and friends daily.”

Technology may also be used to encourage residents to socialize with each other — and to get their bodies moving.

Teams at one senior care community provided Fitbit wearables as part of a challenge that encouraged residents to collectively walk the length of Route 66.

“Residents loved it so much they also ended up walking [the equivalent of] the coast of California,” Kelly Keefe, vice president of community solutions strategy at MatrixCare, a maker of software for skilled nursing faculties, noted in another session. “We don’t have to spend a fortune to engage with our residents. Think simply and think broadly.” 

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That notion guided a deployment of 600 Amazon smart speakers at Friendship Senior Options in Schaumburg, Ill. Residents with low vision or limited mobility can easily use the voice-activated Alexa platform, said Stephen Yenchek, the community’s president and CEO, who cited the growing value of natural language processing in healthcare.  

In one virtual commenter’s own program, “One 100-year-old enjoys playing trivia — with Alexa acting as the facilitator — with his brother in another state.”

Beyond that, panelists noted, smart speakers in senior living can be used to read from the daily newspaper, announce dining hall menus, play music and check the weather.

How to Plan for New Technology Programs in Senior Care Settings

At first glance, these initiatives may sound enticing — and even simple — but LeadingAge speakers cautioned communities to develop and test a strategic plan before rolling out a new product or service to older adults.

Users need a smooth and positive first encounter to warm up to the tools. Make sure software is loaded and functional; a device should be simple enough to prompt repeat engagements.

“Initial experience with residents is critical,” said Morgan.

Beyond having a strong infrastructure to handle the added bandwidth, Morgan added that using dashboard software, when available, to analyze what programs are providing the most value is key to long-term success.

Just as important is keeping an open mind. 

“Don’t assume you know what the residents are excited to do,” Andes said. “Be open and ask them questions. Also, don’t assume your staff are technologically savvy. Make sure you’re training staff and putting them in a position where they are prepared to answer questions.”

Keep this page bookmarked for articles from the event. Follow us on Twitter @HealthTechMag as well as the official organization account, @LeadingAge, and join the conversation using the hashtag #LeadingAge20.

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