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Leveraging Technology to Reduce the Devastating Impact of Senior Isolation During COVID-19

By Bruce Baron, CEO, VoiceFriend

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, research organizations such as the National Institute of Aging already warned that social isolation and loneliness are linked to increased risks for a range of physical conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and weakened immune systems—as well as mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.1

The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has served to magnify these issues as senior living communities and skilled nursing facilities reduce visitations and isolate seniors to protect their health. Even where visits are allowed, well-intentioned family members and friends of the elderly are staying away to avoid exposing their loved ones to the virus. This lack of physical interactions can serve to reduce feelings of connectedness with others—and accelerate other health risks.2

Matthew L. Russell, MD, a geriatrician and palliative care specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, warns of the need to address senior loneliness during the COVID-19 crisis: “Loneliness amongst the older population will be a much more insidious cause of casualty than we previously realized.”3

Besides loneliness, seniors in care communities can feel great stress during periods of isolation and social distancing. The pandemic has hit these communities hard, with roughly 42% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths occurring in skilled nursing homes and assisted living communities.4 The overworked, overburdened staff at these communities and care providers may not have the ability to engage with their seniors as often as is needed to check in on their well-being and encourage them to stay socially engaged through safe social programs and events. A strong communications program that does not rely on face-to-face contact between staff and seniors is key. 

“Loneliness amongst the older population will be a much more insidious cause of casualty than we previously realized."

– Matthew L. Russell, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital

Leveraging available technology for communications outreach
 
Implementing an effective communications outreach effort for seniors in senior living communities and skilled nursing facilities is vitally important during this period of social isolation. Regular outreach and proactive sharing of information along with increased social interaction can help reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, loneliness and grief—and boost emotional and physical well-being. The real question, however, is how does an already overwhelmed, overstressed care provider implement such a communications outreach effort while maintaining the mandatory restrictions necessary to thwart a resurgence of the virus?
 
In a recent article published by the Journal of the American Health Information Management Association, Gary Call, MD, concludes, “It is critical to use available technology as a force multiplier to increase the reach of our human outreach capabilities.”5   

One of those critical force multipliers is voice technology. MBK Senior Living, which operates over 30 communities throughout the western United States, has been using an automated response communications solution called VoiceFriend (www.voicefriend.net), which leverages the latest voice technology to help them manage their communications to seniors, families and staff throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Using this technology, seniors can more readily be made aware of—and encouraged to participate in—safe social programs and events. In addition, seniors in isolation can be kept up to date on the community’s safety procedures and status, helping to reduce worry and stress. “With this voice technology, we can easily put out mass messages to our entire population to inform them of changing protocols and safety measures we have in place in response to the pandemic,” notes Jeff Fischer, president of MBK Senior Living. “This has been especially helpful during COVID-19.” 

The ability to keep their seniors engaged and informed helps promote inclusiveness that is vital in battling the isolation and loneliness that can set in. Family members are kept informed using the same voice technology—gently reminding them to contact their elderly loved ones regularly and encourage them to participate in social activities

Leveraging resident check-ins to further combat isolation

Resident safety and wellness check-ins can also be an important additional means to further combat isolation by ensuring that socially isolated seniors are kept aware of opportunities to engage socially. However, these processes are often labor-intensive and thus prone to errors and inconsistencies that can result in seniors feeling isolated and ignored. Once again, voice technology can help overcome these challenges by automating scheduled check-in calls to residents—and automatically notifying the staff of any senior that indicates they need help or fails to respond on time. In addition, they can also inform seniors of safe social opportunities such as virtual meetings and events, or to ask them follow-up questions to further gauge their mood levels.

Overcoming communications challenges

Not every person is comfortable or able to use voice technology. They may be challenged by impairments. To address this, these communications solutions can also send out the same voice messages as text or email messages. Seniors and families can also choose to receive communications on-demand by dialing into a toll-free number, or via more advanced tools such as Amazon Alexa devices. In addition, voice translation technology allows people to choose to receive voice messages in their language of preference.

Fortunately, the tremendous innovations in voice technology over the past decade provide reliable, easy-to-use means for senior living, skilled nursing and other healthcare providers to keep everyone informed and safe—and to reduce the isolation that can be detrimental to the wellness of their seniors.
 

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Endnotes/References:

1 National Institute of Aging, “Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks,” April 23, 2019. [Accessed September 21, 2020.]

2 Marcia G. Ory and Matthew Lee Smith, “Social isolation: The COVID-19 pandemic’s hidden health risk for older adults, and how to manage it,” The Conversation, July 6, 2020. [Accessed September 21, 2020.]

3 Matthew Russell, MD, “Helping Seniors Manage Loneliness and Anxiety During COVID-19,” Massachusetts General Hospital, May 20, 2020. [Accessed September 21, 2020.]

4 Gregg Girvan and Avik Roy, “Nursing Homes & Assisted Living Facilities Account for 42% of COVID-19 Deaths,” The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, May 7, 2020; updated August 31, 2020. [Accessed September 21, 2020.]

5 Gary Call, MD, “COVID-19 and Social Isolation Puts Elderly at Risk for Loneliness,” Journal of the American Health Information Management Association, April 14, 2020. [Accessed September 21, 2020.]

 

 

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