The first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic hit seniors’ health the hardest. People over 65 years old suffered higher hospitalization rates than younger demographics, and they were significantly more likely to die (see table below). Nursing homes and long-term care (LTC) facilities were hotspots, and raised questions about the support in place for seniors as they faced isolation and, in some cases, neglect.
Now that vaccines are being rolled out it’s time to reflect on what lessons can be learned and how to improve senior care as the population ages. It’s clear that in some cases, the latest user-friendly health technology could play an important role.
In the early days of the pandemic, public health authorities had minimal data with which to make informed decisions. Scientists were not yet sure of how much risk contaminated surfaces posed compared to airborne transmission, nor how much masks or other PPE could reduce potential exposure. Asymptomatic transmission was an especially frightening prospect — what if someone who feels perfectly well is still able to shed the virus that makes someone else seriously ill?
Out of an abundance of caution, strict quarantines were put in place. Seniors living in various forms of assisted care facilities and on their own were suddenly unable to have the kind of interactions with family, friends and professional caregivers that they typically could rely on.
The effects were tragic. In the U.S., Human Rights Watch called out reports from nursing homes of extreme weight loss, dehydration, untreated bedsores, inadequate hygiene, mental and physical decline, and more:
“Staffing shortages, a longstanding issue that was a significant problem during the pandemic, and the absence of family visitors, many of whom nursing homes rely on to help staff with essential tasks, may have contributed to possible neglect and decline. Federal and state authorities should investigate the situation and ensure accountability for abuse.”
In Canada, the Ontario Auditor General delivered a special report on the pandemic response in that province’s LTC homes. Among the concerns it raised were the quarantine policies:
“The measure was intended to control COVID-19 outbreaks by limiting the number of people going into homes. However, this lack of contact took an emotional and physical toll on residents and their families, in many cases resulting in a deterioration in residents’ physical and mental condition.”
One U.S. news report headlined the unintended consequences this way: The hidden Covid-19 health crisis: Elderly people are dying from isolation.
Demographic trends suggest that the challenges of isolation will persist, even after the pandemic. The U.S. Census Bureau notes that by 2030, 1 in 5 people will be retirement age, and all baby boomers will be at least 65. Within five years, for the first time in U.S. history, those who are 65 years and older will outnumber people younger than 18.
As senior citizens’ mobility decreases, isolation will inherently increase. How will Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z look after their elders? What can health organizations do to ensure high levels of care, even in the face of staffing challenges, a desire to maintain independence, and manage viral outbreaks?
Virtual healthcare technologies, which are already increasingly mainstream, need to be considered as part of the solution.
While technology can never replace the immeasurable benefits of direct human care, it can supplement interactions that might otherwise not happen at all.
Here are just a few potential uses of easy-to-use, video-enabled connectivity and virtual health.
Isolation can lead to depression and other health ailments. Video chatting can help seniors keep in touch with long-distance family members and friends, and stay connected with what’s happening in the community.
Technology can enable more elders to live at home safely, with non-intrusive monitoring for falls, intruders or wandering off. Webcams, security systems, and location devices, can quickly alert family and health professionals of a problem.
Seniors commonly take a variety of prescription medications, with schedules that can be confusing. Remote devices will help remind them to take the right medication at the right time.
Remote monitoring will also help identify potentially dangerous heart, stroke and other health conditions before they require emergency treatment.
Similarly, virtual care solutions enable health practitioners to perform remote follow-ups and coordinate care for complex cases that can improve outcomes and reduce readmissions.
Regular health check-ins become less of a burden for patients when health data are acquired digitally and appointments can happen without a trip (and wait) to a clinic. Remote solutions allow health providers to engage elderly patients in their homes to help manage chronic conditions and offer mental health support.
Tech-infused Senior Care
The tragic and deadly infections that tore through LTC and nursing homes exposed troubling vulnerabilities in how we care for seniors. Looming demographic shifts now make it all the more important that health organizations determine ways to efficiently provide better care for our most vulnerable — at home and in various levels of assisted living.