Residents of senior care facilities have experienced higher levels of loneliness since the COVID-19 pandemic first began. Stay-at-home mandates during the initial wave of the virus made many people feel more socially isolated, and these effects have lasting complications for older adults, according to the National Council of Aging.
While the effects of social isolation vary among different people, they can take a toll on physical and mental well-being. According to a 2018 study by Oxford Academic, being socially connected helps reduce the risk of premature mortality, while being socially isolated can increase risks of depression, cognitive decline and dementia.
“Past studies have shown that prolonged isolation has a profound negative effect on health and well-being – as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” says Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research with AARP, says in a recent report. “It’s not surprising that older adults reported more loneliness since the pandemic began, particularly those who live alone. We need to continue finding ways to connect and engage with one another throughout this public health crisis.”
A growing number of senior care facilities are implementing technology to help residents build better connections as pandemic-related restrictions remain in place. The number of Americans ages 65 and older is expected to double by 2060, so it is essential that these facilities find ways to improve not only the quality of care but also the quality of life.
A report by Frontiers in Public Health found that when using technology, older adults reported an increase in quality of life. Staying connected through smartphones, iPads, email and online chats was found to be a positive influence on reducing loneliness. These technologies can even reduce the cost of dedicated personnel visits and increase the opportunities for more social connections as they are not limited by visitation hours.
Meanwhile, smart technology is bringing other benefits to senior care facilities. A study by the University of Missouri and Baylor University found that older adults with dementia or mild cognitive impairment were able to improve their memories by using a personal assistant application on smartphones. These notifications reminded residents about upcoming events and activities.
“We were successfully able to train the adults to use the technology, and also the adults that used the personal assistants the most had the best memory performance,” says Andrew Kiselica, assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Health Professions. “Some people may have had doubts about if we could train these older adults with cognitive impairment to use the technology or if they would find it helpful, and the preliminary evidence suggests it helped them with their memory and improved their quality of life.”
There are downsides to the use of technology for some residents, though. Some consumer electronics are restrictive to those with poor eyesight, have difficulty typing or are unable to learn an unfamiliar system. However, voice-assisted devices, such as Google Home or Alexa, are breaking through technological barriers by helping adults 75 and older form a technological and social bond with these devices, according to the Frontiers in Public Health report.
Mackenna Moralez is assistant editor with Healthcare Facilities Today.