Confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults have had to cope with the introduction of new technologies at an astonishing pace. This fact was most evident in the widescale adoption of telehealth and remote monitoring solutions, which surged in the first stage of the pandemic as health systems and providers battled to minimize the spread of the virus.
Those previously accustomed to regular doctor visits had to adapt to the forced move from in-person to virtual consultations and deal with the radical changes affecting their interactions with other people, access to services and residence security in the new “shut-in” economy.
The pace of change will continue to increase as society becomes more reliant on apps, new services and technologies. Although more older adults make a conscious decision to stay at home (wherever home is) and live as independently as possible, as a group they traditionally have been reluctant to embrace new technologies, such as remote monitoring, which could support that decision.
A survey by the AARP indicates that approximately 90% of seniors intend to stay in their current homes for another five to 10 years. Many respondents reported that it was becoming increasingly challenging to live independently, with only 43% of those aged more than 70 years finding it “very easy.” Now, as we slowly emerge from COVID-19, those challenges may be greater.
COVID-19 escalated physical and mental health issues among seniors
For residents of senior living communities and nursing homes, as well as those who choose to live independently in traditional homes, isolation has brought other challenges. One of the enduring scars of the pandemic will be the greater awareness of disease and the need to detect and prevent it early on. Many people who previously were active have become physically weakened. The incidence of mental health issues such as depression also has increased.
Personal interaction has diminished due to social distancing, adding to a feeling of disconnection among many. A significant number of older adults remain fearful after more than a year of being told to self-isolate and being prevented from gathering with fellow residents. Doctor and pharmacy visits have become more difficult due to a combination of underlying fear and the uncertainty for this population, members of which are used to seeing a doctor face-to-face and now having to contend with more medical services being offered remotely.
Helping older adults adapt to more remote healthcare
For seniors living independently, including those living in senior living communities, with so many changes to their previous norms, it is imperative to improve analysis of their physical health to detect any threats they may face. Those threats can include fluctuations in vital signs, such as blood pressure or heart rate, or the risk of injury through falling. Seniors who don’t go out are vulnerable, but active seniors who are out and about also need to continually monitor their vital signs to detect spikes and abnormalities if they are to remain confident about their ability to function as independently as possible.
Technologies as enablers of improved outcomes
Despite the inherent challenges, one positive outcome of the pandemic has been a growing willingness among older adults to adapt to the increased “technologization” of their lives. The successful implementation of new technologic solutions, however, will depend on whether those technologies are user-friendly enough to allow for widescale adoption.
The next-generation technologies are beginning to create a new landscape that will improve the quality of life for older adults, protect them and raise the standard of health-provision. And if the increase in Zoom call usage by previously technology-shy elders can serve as any indication, it appears that the U.S. aging population gradually is becoming more accepting of technology.
The suspicion of technology by some older adults — which often is fueled by a lack of familiarity — is diminishing and, as they continue to find solutions in tech for day-to-day problems, they will focus less on the digital toolset and more on positive outcomes.
Home deliveries, for example, are now less about the websites and apps and more about convenience and choice. Increased use of apps, such as wrist monitors that record daily steps and other “friendly” technologies, are building confidence among older adults.
Confidence alone is not enough for these solutions, and others being developed, to reach their full potential. We must both bolster education about them and adjust product design to ensure that elders are more comfortable using these technologies, particularly as more healthcare is delivered remotely.
Health monitoring and management is becoming less intrusive and therefore less threatening to seniors. It also is removing some of the challenges they currently face, such as struggling to record their own vital signs — either from not knowing how, forgetting to record the data or neglecting to take their medication. Doctors and care teams now use a variety of technologies to monitor a person’s health remotely, including the wireless measurement and transmission of data related to blood pressure, blood glucose levels and lung function.
Whereas some older adults had “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”-style emergency buttons in their residences for the past few decades, a new generation of wearables now automatically records and transmits information, including posture control, tremors and sleep patterns, as well as detecting changes in normal activity, such as falls or periods of extended inactivity.
The growing acceptance of telehealth
There likely will be a continued move toward these capabilities as telehealth grows in acceptance and people become more concerned about managing and monitoring their health and well-being. This is where a platform coupled with a variety of sensors that track health and wellness can make a real difference. Those digital tools already are available and are gaining traction as people start to see the positive outcomes from proactively recorded vital signs, calculating and tracking calorific intake, or scheduling reminders for taking medicine.
With the continuation of COVID-19, we have started to see a shift in attitude of older adults toward the adoption of new technologies. Those technologies increasingly will enable independent living for them, whether they live in a congregate setting or a home where they’ve lived for decades. Home automation and safety systems have been developed that can make this situation a reality and will become more important as face-to-face interaction with those living independently declines. The risks will increase as the population ages, so there will be greater need for remote patient monitoring.
Older adults have been forced to accept the “technologization” of their lives by the pandemic. Now, they are starting to appreciate how these technologies can enable them to live more independently for longer.