Impact Series

COVID-19 accelerates tech options for lonely seniors, addressing ‘double pandemic’ of isolation

(Georg Arthur Pflueger / Unsplash)

Even before COVID-19 forced us to stay at home and isolate ourselves, too many older adults were suffering with loneliness. Pre-pandemic, some 43% of adults aged 60 and older reported feeling lonely, according to a national study.

And then it got worse.

University of Washington researchers this summer interviewed dozens of leaders from senior-focused social service and healthcare organizations statewide for a study aiming to better understand the growing challenges faced by older people during COVID.

One participant in the survey shared an exchange with a widower who has one lung and for whom the virus would likely be deadly.

“He has been told by his doctor, ‘You cannot leave your apartment until there’s a vaccine,’ ” said the care provider. “So he’s basically isolated, and he calls us two or three times a week to say, ‘Thank you for the meal, and all you guys are saving me. My wife died. I don’t know what I’d do. I’m so lonely. It’s nice to hear your voice.’”

Carolyn Parsey, a neuropsychologist at UW Medicine’s Memory and Brain Wellness Center at Harborview Medical Center. (UW Medicine Photo)

Researchers, entrepreneurs and those on the front lines of care are looking to technology-based services as a key strategy for aiding seniors in isolation, helping them connect with other people and essential resources. They say that the pandemic is bringing needed attention — and potentially much needed dollars — to a long-standing problem.

COVID “is highlighting a lot of the challenges that were very much prevalent, but they’re more severe now,” said study co-author Carolyn Parsey, a neuropsychologist at UW Medicine’s Memory and Brain Wellness Center at Harborview Medical Center.

The study dubbed the senior’s isolation in combination with COVID as a “double pandemic.” Loneliness is linked to serious physical health effects, including increased risk of dementia, heart disease and stroke. In this time of greater isolation, the UW researchers found seniors were experiencing weight loss and more falls, while moving less and getting less mental stimulation.

Alyssa Weakley, assistant professor in the University of California, Davis’s Department of Neurology. (UC Davis Photo)

New and existing technology could help.

Alyssa Weakley is developing an online app called Interactive-Care or I-Care that helps seniors with early stages of dementia connect remotely with family and other caregivers, while also prompting them to engage with daily tasks.

“The role for technology is to bridge some gaps, not to replace the relationships that [seniors] have with other people or replace some of the things that are working well for them, but to enhance and augment what already exists,” said Weakley, an assistant professor in the University of California, Davis’s Department of Neurology.

Northwest health insurance provider Regence is taking a different tack, partnering with a healthcare startup to provide what it’s calling “grandkids on demand.” The program, officially known as Assistance from a Distance, will be offered through Miami-based startup Papa.

The program matches seniors with “Papa Pals” — millennial-aged workers who provide social interactions via phone or video conference and can run errands. The pals are not medical clinicians, but do receive health-related information about the seniors, including what medications they’re taking, dietary issues and some details about family and support in the area.

Dara Smith, director of Medicare Product and Sales for Regence (Regence Photo)

“The pal takes all of that specific information and says, ‘Are you taking your diabetes medicine and making sure you’re eating low sugar foods,’” said Dara Smith, director of Medicare Product and Sales for Regence. They can ask about visitors and the senior’s general well-being.

“They are essentially friends,” she said. “They develop relationships.”

The benefit will be available to subscribers of Regence Medicare Advantage plans beginning in January.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Washington organizations supporting seniors have been navigating the benefits as well as the limitations of tech solutions. Some of the takeaways from the UW study include:

  • A digital divide puts technology out of reach for many seniors due to the high costs of devices and cell and internet service, and some areas lack broadband access. The problems mirror the divide experienced by some students struggling to connect to online learning.
  • A lack of tech skills bars some seniors from digital solutions.
  • COVID is busting the myth that many seniors can’t or don’t want to use technology. Older adults are gaining new tech skills during this time.
  • Some programs are providing seniors prepaid cell phones.
  • In-person services have successfully gone digital to provide virtual support groups and activity-based socialization groups.

While individual programs are helping lonely seniors, the UW’s Parsey would like to see state- or county-led efforts address infrastructure issues around high speed internet. The state recently created the Washington State Broadband Office to help tackle the problem.

Both Parsey and Weakley say they’ve struggled in the past to get funding and support for their work to bring tech to seniors. Since the pandemic struck they’re seeing more interest from grant organizations and hope for a surge in the commercial sector as well. The CEO of Papa reported strong growth even before COVID, and expects to be nationwide by January.

“It’s a huge user group,” said Parsey, “and it’s only getting bigger.”

Editor’s Note: Funding for GeekWire’s Impact Series is provided by the Singh Family Foundation in support of public service journalism. GeekWire editors and reporters operate independently and maintain full editorial control over the content.

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