Reducing Social Isolation of Older Adults during COVID-19 with High-Tech Connectivity, Safety, and Exploration Ideas

Guest Contributors Theresa Davison and Joe Sample

Science and technology have enhanced the opportunity for older adults to connect more with their world than ever before. The burgeoning field of gerontechnology is creating environments for independent living and social participation for older adults through technology (International Society for Geotechnology, 2020). There are two lines of technological advancement for aging: 1) an anti-aging approach to change the negative affects of aging from a biomedical perspective and 2) a technology as compliment to healthy aging (Joyce & Loe, 2010). In an AARP study (2016), medication management and healthcare support topped the uses for caregiver technology. As we indicated in our low-tech blog, older adults are quickly adopting technology, but connectivity remains a key challenge. Older adults need to see a benefit to using technology to adopt it (e.g., connectivity to family/friends, maintain independence and safety, and to explore).

In this post, we share high tech examples that can help reduce social isolation.

Connectivity
  • Social Media
    • Facebook and YouTube remain the two primary social media platforms used by older adults in the U.S. (Perrin & Anderson, 2019). Facebook provides a way to connect with family and friends as well as to watch live events. Iowa’s AAAs have increased their activity on Facebook to share information and provide evidence-based programs and activities.
    • YouTube provides a platform for education and entertainment. It is a way for older adults to connect with the world around them.
  • Virtual Visits
    • The online meeting platform, Zoom, has exploded in use since the need to work from home became a standard practice during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an easy-to-use platform and is inexpensive (free for personal use). The Iowa Association of Area Agencies has used Zoom for its virtual meetings for over three years. Senior Planet has a user guide (https://seniorplanet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Zoom.pdf) for older adults. Of course, you could always go to YouTube to learn how to use Zoom.
    • Most people by now are familiar with Google. This tech giant has two platforms for connectivity: Google Duo and Google Hangouts.
  • GrandPad
    • This new tablet technology is described as simple, safe, and secure for older adult connectivity. It utilizes one-touch video calls, voice enabled emails, and integrates many of the features found in other tablets on the market. However, there is an extra emphasis on protecting older adults from scams as scammers cannot directly contact the technology user. Only those “in the center of a ‘circle of trust,’ that is a network of all their friends and family” can contact the end user, stated GrandPad’s chief gerontologist, Dr. Kerry Burnight. After years studying and working in gerontechnology, Dr. Burnight said, “It wasn’t until I partnered with GrandPad that I became part of the solution.” GrandPad is collaborating with Iowa’s Area Agencies on Aging to expand use of this technology to reduce social isolation during COVID-19, and beyond.
Independence and Safety
  • Medical alert systems now include fall detection monitoring systems and no longer require a telephone landline to operate. Most are now equipped with GPS functions for tracking movement. Click here for a Caring.com’s list of rated medical alert systems
  • Amazon Alexa/Echo and Siri for the IPhone are other tech options that virtual assistants for independence and safety. These platforms provide access to communication with family members and call for emergency assistance. They also provide entertainment in the form of responding to your questions or listening to music. The added benefit of these technologies is that they are operated primarily through voice command.
  • Want to listen to a good book? High tech options, such as Audible or Audiobooks.com provide access to volumes of literature across all genres.
  • Want to read a good book using tech? Kindle and IPad (and other electronic tablets) are great tools for reading a good book. You can even adjust the text size to meet your visual needs. These may also feature an audio option and the ability to play other games. Click here to read advice from AARP on using an e-reader versus a tablet.
Explore
  • Virtual tours
    • Ever want to tour the Guggenheim Museum in New York? How about the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam or the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, Italy? Well now you can right from the comfort of your home with virtual tours. Many of these tours have been opened to the public, free of charge since the pandemic began. Here is a link from Travel & Leisure that provides a list of 12 such museums (https://www.travelandleisure.com/attractions/museums-galleries/museums-with-virtual-tours)
  • Virtual reality exploration
    • Virtual reality is the use of technology to simulate an experience for educational or entertainment purposes. One company oriented toward using VR for older adults, MyndVR, believes that its product can address social isolation and improve the lives of older adults through the virtual reality experience. The company has garnered media attention for its service (see MyndVR media link here: https://www.myndvr.com/press) and its advertisement https://vimeo.com/420885490
  • Music and memory

High tech solutions to social isolation can be exciting outlet. There are, of course, safety issues of which older adults need to be aware. Scams can, and do, occur in social media platforms. As with any other scam, you should be cautious of opening links from people you do not know and never provide personal information (e.g., bank account, social security number).  Here is a link to more information about social media and online scams: Click here to read a guide to online safety from connectsafely.org.

Challenges to older adult usage of high-tech options is affordability and connectivity. Cost to use these various technologies and services can range from no out-of-pocket expense to several hundred dollars to thousands, depending on the technology. Be sure to find those technologies that safely fit within your budget. In rural Iowa, reliable, and affordable, connectivity remains a challenge and has contributed to social isolation concerns. While there is no known immediate solution to this concern, the COVID-19 pandemic has assuredly stressed to policy makers the importance of “last mile” connections. Now, more than ever, access to affordable technology is needed for older Iowans.

References

AARP (2016). AARP report finds high caregiver interest in using technology but low usage due to lack of viable options and time challenges. Accessed at https://press.aarp.org/2016-04-27-AARP-Report-Finds-High-Caregiver-Interest-in-Using-Technology-But-Low-Usage-Due-to-Lack-of-Viable-Options-and-Time-Challenges.

International Society for Gerontechnology (2020). About Us website page. Accessed at http://www.gerontechnology.org/about.html.

Joyce, K., & Loe, M. (2010). Technogenerians: Studying health and illness through an ageing, science, and technology lens. Wiley-Blackwell.

Perrin, A., & Anderson, M. (2019). Share of U.S. adults using social media, including Facebook, is mostly unchanged since 2018. Accessed at https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/10/share-of-u-s-adults-using-social-media-including-facebook-is-mostly-unchanged-since-2018/.

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