Family gatherings on Zoom and FaceTime. Online orders from grocery stores and pharmacies. Telehealth appointments with physicians.

These have been lifesavers for many older adults staying at home during the coronavirus pandemic. But an unprecedented shift to virtual interactions has a downside: Large numbers of seniors are unable to participate.

Among them are older adults with dementia (14% of those 71 and older), hearing loss (nearly two-thirds of those 70 and older) and impaired vision (13.5% of those 65 and older), who can have a hard time using digital devices and programs designed without their needs in mind. (Think small icons, difficult-to-read typefaces and inadequate captioning among the hurdles.)

Additionally, older adults with limited financial resources may not be able to afford devices or the associated internet service fees. Half of seniors who live alone and 23% of those in two-person households are unable to afford basic necessities. Others are not adept at using technology and lack the assistance to learn.

During the pandemic, which has hit older adults especially hard, this divide between technology “haves” and “have-nots” has serious consequences.

Older adults in the “haves” group have more access to virtual social interactions and telehealth services, and more opportunities to secure essential supplies online. Meanwhile, the “have-nots” are at greater risk of social isolation, forgoing medical care and being without food or other necessary items.

Advertising

Charlotte Yeh, chief medical officer for AARP Services, observed the difficulties associated with technology this year when trying to remotely teach her 92-year-old father how to use a cellphone. She lives in Boston; her father lives in Pittsburgh.

Yeh’s mother had always handled communication for the couple, but she was in a nursing home after being hospitalized for pneumonia. Because of the pandemic, the nursing home had closed to visitors. To talk to her and other family members, Yeh’s father had to turn to technology.

But various impairments got in the way: Yeh’s father is blind in one eye, with severe hearing loss and a cochlear implant, and he had trouble hearing conversations over the cellphone. And it was more difficult than Yeh expected to find an easy-to-use cellphone app that accurately translates speech into captions.

Often, family members would try to arrange Zoom meetings. For these, Yeh’s father used a computer but still had problems because he could not read the tiny captions on Zoom. A tech-savvy granddaughter solved that problem by connecting a tablet with a separate transcription program.

When Yeh’s mother, who was 90, came home in early April, physicians treating her for metastatic lung cancer wanted to arrange telehealth visits. But this could not occur via cellphone (the screen was too small) or her computer (too hard to move it around). Physicians could examine lesions around the older woman’s mouth only when a tablet was held at just the right angle, with a phone’s flashlight aimed at it for extra light.

“It was like a three-ring circus,” Yeh said. And her family had the resources needed to solve these problems; many do not, she noted. Yeh’s mother died in July; her father is now living alone, making him more dependent on technology than ever.

Advertising

Landmark Health serves a highly vulnerable group of 42,000 people in 14 states, bringing health-care services into patients’ homes. Its average patient is nearly 80, with eight medical conditions. After the first few weeks of the pandemic, Landmark halted in-person visits to homes because personal protective equipment was in short supply.

Instead, Landmark tried to deliver care remotely. It soon discovered that fewer than 25% of patients had appropriate technology and knew how to use it, said Nick Loporcaro, the chief executive. “Telehealth is not the panacea, especially for this population,” he said.

Landmark plans to experiment with what he calls “facilitated telehealth”: nonmedical staff members bringing devices to patients’ homes and managing telehealth visits. (It now has enough PPE to make this possible.) And it, too, is looking at technology that it can give to members.

The GrandPad tablet is loaded with senior-friendly apps designed for adults 75 and older. (Courtesy of GrandPad)
The GrandPad tablet is loaded with senior-friendly apps designed for adults 75 and older. (Courtesy of GrandPad)

One alternative gaining attention is GrandPad, a tablet loaded with senior-friendly apps designed for adults 75 and older. In July, the National PACE Association, whose members run programs providing comprehensive services to vulnerable seniors who live at home, announced a partnership with GrandPad to encourage adoption of this technology.

“Everyone is scrambling to move to this new remote care model and looking for options,” said Scott Lien, the company’s co-founder and CEO.

Advertising

Another alternative is technology from iN2L (an acronym for It’s Never Too Late), a company that specializes in serving people with dementia. In Florida, under a new program sponsored by the state’s Department of Elder Affairs, iN2L tablets loaded with dementia-specific content have been distributed to 300 nursing homes and assisted-living centers.

The goal is to help seniors with cognitive impairment connect virtually with friends and family and engage in online activities that ease social isolation, said Sam Fazio, senior director of quality care and psychosocial research at the Alzheimer’s Association, a partner in the effort. But because of budget constraints, only two tablets are being sent to each long-term care community.

Families report it can be difficult to schedule adequate time with loved ones when only a few devices are available. This happened to Maitely Weismann’s 77-year-old mother after she moved into a short-staffed Los Angeles memory care facility in March. After seeing how hard it was to connect, Weismann, who lives in Los Angeles, gave her mother a tablet and hired an aide to ensure that they were able to talk each night.

Without the aide’s assistance, Weismann’s mother would end up accidentally pausing the video or turning off the device. “She probably wanted to reach out and touch me, and when she touched the screen it would go blank and she’d panic,” Weismann said.

What’s needed going forward? Laurie Orlov, founder of the blog Aging and Health Technology Watch, said nursing homes, assisted-living centers and senior communities need to install community-wide Wi-Fi services — something that many lack.

“We need to enable Zoom get-togethers. We need the ability to put voice technology in individual rooms, so people can access Amazon Alexa or Google products,” she said. “We need more group activities that enable multiple residents to communicate with each other virtually. And we need vendors to bundle connectivity, devices, training and service in packages designed for older adults.”

This column is created by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service that is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.