The COVID-19 pandemic solidified the home as a dominant force in peoples’ lives. Today, long after stay-at-home orders ended, it is still common to work from home, socialize at home and even access healthcare at home.
When going to the doctor’s office or hospital became an increasingly dangerous prospect during the pandemic, many people — including many seniors — began receiving healthcare guidance through telemedicine appointments. The once-unimaginable prospect of virtual healthcare tipped from an innovative model to a widely adopted necessity and quickened the acceptance of the already clear trend toward aging in place as the preferred long-term care option for seniors.
Healthcare systems play an essential role in supporting the health and wellness of these seniors, even when seniors aren’t actually entering their facilities. Understanding the drivers of aging in place — both those that are well established and emerging — can help these facilities prepare for the new reality of senior living.
At the height of the pandemic, hospitals used telemedicine to provide patient care for up to 85 percent of their patient load. Emerging from the pandemic, healthcare experts expect that 15-20 percent of patient volumes will be engaged via telemedicine.
The pandemic also disproportionately affected long-term care facilities. One in every four COVID deaths in the U.S. happened to residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care communities. This situation spurred concrete changes to the facilities and operations of nursing homes, such as implementing single-patient rooms, enhancing HVAC requirements and requiring separate paths for staff and patients.
Some indicators already were suggesting aging in place as the future for many seniors. Retirement communities are expensive and out of reach for most people, and subsidized housing is only available to the lowest-income seniors. Baby boomers — 10,000 of whom are turning 65 every day — are among the most tech-savvy and independent retirees. Their desire to stay where they are has spurred regulatory and policy changes that incentivize aging in place. Finally, new technology and digital adoption is making it easier to stay connected to family, communities and essential services.
Seniors and healthcare facilities alike are adapting to these shifting dynamics.
Seniors who don’t need around-the-clock treatment can and should have autonomy in their living setup. Rather than choosing between large, multilevel family homes and residential facilities, seniors can select from several new spaces that are emerging as later-in-life residential options.
Tiny homes are becoming increasingly accessible accessory dwelling units for seniors because they offer a variety of opportunities for community. Other seniors gravitate toward smaller clusters of a dozen tiny homes dedicated to this demographic, with common outdoor space and nearby amenities to build community. Setting up seniors in living spaces optimized for autonomy is one trend, while delivering care within those environments requires additional innovative thinking.
Telemedicine takes hold
For seniors who are aging in place to access needed care, telemedicine trends that became essential during the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate and become a mainstay. Previous complexities tied to insurance reimbursement for virtual visits were quickly remedied in the urgency of the pandemic, and there is no turning back.
For healthcare systems, the shift to telemedicine means doctors still will provide care from their offices and patient rooms, though the facilities themselves need to ensure they can reach their patients digitally. Enhanced IT and broadband systems will be critical for telemedicine technology to work reliably. Facilities managers can work with the IT team to ensure the right infrastructure is set up to support this major shift in healthcare delivery.
In addition to the in-hospital system infrastructure, healthcare providers also can consider providing patients with technology that better connects them to their doctors. For example, the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is home healthcare, where regional VA hospitals send out ambassadors to provide and train veteran patients to use the hardware and software they need to virtually see their doctors.
This program further underscores the trend toward aging in place, as many veterans live well outside the local areas of their regional VA hospitals and cannot make long trips to and from the facility regularly. By bringing the technology tools to their patients, the VA is ensuring their patients will get the care they need when they need it.
Hospital systems can follow the VA’s lead by providing technology and training for their senior patients to access telemedicine visits. In addition to the bare-bones hardware and video technology, a growing world of new technologies can help provide more complex services beyond routine check-ups.
VR, AI and long-term care
While virtual reality (VR) has been heralded as one of the next breakthroughs for entertainment purposes, it also has real implications for the delivery of healthcare. By using VR, doctors can provide more-informed care for their patients.
Immersive technology is a new kind of tech that incorporates sensors to take stock of patients’ vitals and instantly provide that information to a doctor. This tool also creates a VR experience that responds to the patient’s vitals at that moment.
For example, if a patient’s vitals indicate he or she is stressed or anxious, new technology can implement a calming scenario that reduces the physical symptoms of these emotions. Such tools are a critical breakthrough in healthcare delivery and bedside manner, even when doctors and patients are not in the same room.
What does all this mean for healthcare facilities? While aging in place seems like a big step backward for long-term care facilities, most people will need long-term care at some point in their lives. Telemedicine technology means more seniors can be supported where and how they would like for a longer period, until their care requires more than can reasonably accommodated at home.
Helping elder patients access care virtually until that point will open hospital and long-term care facilities to serve the patients who need it most, with more dedicated attention once they are on the premises. Ultimately, ensuring facilities are equipped to handle this new era of technology will provide crucial support to aging populations, wherever they reside.
Douglas King is vice president and national healthcare sector leader for Project Management Advisors Inc., a national real estate consulting firm providing services as the owner’s representative. He has more than 40 years of international experience in complex, large-scale healthcare projects as a designer, educator and researcher. He has been recognized as an influencer in healthcare design trends by national organizations and publications.