Feb 25 2021

How a California Program Puts Technology in the Hands of Seniors

A pilot at four housing communities is helping older residents connect with loved ones and healthcare providers.

Underserved communities and the elderly have been hit hard by COVID-19. For older adults who live in these communities, the pandemic has been a devastating double whammy.

The effects of this situation extend far beyond the impact of contracting the virus. As social distancing measures are adopted, many older adults find themselves isolated, depressed and with little access to the healthcare services they need. Some older adults have turned to technology to close the gap between themselves and loved ones and to connect with healthcare professionals.

But in underserved aging communities, technological challenges can undercut these efforts. Many affordable housing communities do not offer Wi-Fi access to residents, due to policies of the Department for Housing and Urban Development. Further, many older adults don’t have devices on which to contact family members or healthcare providers, and even those who do may lack the experience needed to use them properly.

In California, the Center for IT Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute are taking some useful steps to address this situation. A program known as Lighthouse, which started in 2020, is providing older adults in underserved aging communities with devices on which to make video calls, and network connectivity to support them. The program delivers telehealth services to these vulnerable communities while helping residents connect with loved ones who they may not have seen since early 2020.

California Pilot Program Brings Devices and Wi-Fi to Seniors

As they set up the program, organizers faced two immediate challenges: They needed to get devices into the hands of users, and they needed to provide internet access to connect those devices. CDW provided technology support for both efforts.

Organizers settled on providing users with Google Nest Hub Max devices. The thinking was that if seniors could learn to use the devices for video calls, they could also learn to use them for telehealth. The devices offered a number of features that were useful to the program: a voice-enabled interface that would be easy for seniors to use, as well as access to the Google Play Store and Google Assistant.

In the pilot, 20 residents received devices: 10 at an Eskaton community in Sacramento and 10 at a Front Porch community in Los Angeles. The pilot identified users who could serve as tech ambassadors for other seniors, and focused on training users about wellness rather than offering them technology training.

To provide network connectivity, the program deployed Cradlepoint wireless edge solutions, which enabled access to LTE and 5G cellular networks. With this access, the program used MiFi mobile wireless hotspots to provide internet connectivity to the devices.

Once older adults began connecting, good things started to happen. “I haven’t seen a live person all year long,” one user said. “This is the first time I have actually connected with my family and friends.”

“It’s like I’ve been living in black and white,” another said, “and now I’m in Technicolor.”

Affordable housing facilities don’t have healthcare staff, but rather have a person on staff to coordinate services for residents. With devices that enable videoconferencing, this person was able to conduct virtual one-on-one visits with residents. This established a much better connection between both parties, improving communication.

RELATED: See how senior care facilities are keeping residents connected.

Program Could Expand Digital Connectivity to More Seniors

It’s too early to determine the health effects of the pilot so far, but results are expected in April. With that information, the program’s organizers will have a better idea of how to proceed.

One next step will be to build out the networking infrastructure to support a wider rollout in current housing centers. These networks must be low-cost but meet the needs of both devices and users.

A team from the University of California, Davis is conducting a full evaluation of the program’s impact on social isolation and wellness. The hypothesis is that by using this technology, older adults will see increased connection and thereby increased involvement in tech-driven health initiatives.

Once the results have been determined, the program may serve as a model for others.

“We aim to design a replicable, sustainable program that can scale across California,” Lighthouse states. Ultimately, the program could be adopted across the country.

By figuring out how to get older adults to adopt technology and providing them connectivity, Lighthouse could emulate Silver Sneakers, an exercise program for older adults that is in place at 17,000 centers across the U.S. It’s thrilling to imagine the impact this program could have for improving the health and quality of life for older adults.

This article is part of HealthTech’s MonITor blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using #WellnessIT.

MonITor_logo_sized.jpg

SolStock/Getty Images