Ted Okosi headshot
Ted Okosi

I’ve been working in senior care centers for more 20 years, and the people who have been through these places have opened my eyes to the lives of the elderly.

Bernie always was fiercely independent and the type of gentleman who only could have been produced by a bygone era. That’s why seeing what COVID-19 reduced him to has been so difficult.

Although news of COVID-19 and the elderly often focuses on deaths at a particular care facility, it seldom addresses the residents’ lives. The byproduct of that invisible status has been devastating, yet tech represents a ray of hope for a lasting remedy.

Responsibilities. That’s the word Bernie and his friends Tom and Fred would bring up more than almost any other when recalling the good, the bad and the fascinating parts of their lives. Responsibilities to their parents, their wives, their families, and that’s precisely what has been robbed from Bernie since COVID-19 hit. He went from having responsibilities, being connected, having a strong will to live and a purpose, to an uncontrollable decline. Forgetfulness and frailty often are part and parcel of old age, but they don’t always need to be.

Lockdowns may be necessary, but their cost is exceptionally high for seniors.

COVID-19 lockdowns are necessary, and keeping our most vulnerable isolated, especially those living in senior living communities and nursing homes, is the only option we have. Yet we’ve ignored the forgetfulness, frailty and downright depression that older folks become vulnerable to in the process. This pandemic has meant that seniors are missing out on their only truly stimulating activities that they once looked forward to: group outings to the local park, choir sessions and quiz evenings, among other interests. What good is living, after all, if you decline to the point that you no longer want to do so?

Bernie stopped seeing Tom and Fred soon after the first lockdown began, and he stopped seeing his family. Sure, they waved when we brought him near the window, but that just isn’t the same.

His reaction was to hunker down and wait until COVID-19 passed, but it didn’t. With each passing week, Bernie would forget the routine during meals taken in his room, drift into some faraway thoughts, perhaps of better times, and struggle to move about the room, when he had been full of life just weeks earlier.

Tom and Fred were of similar mindsets — their social gatherings declined, and things were going south fast. It was up to our facility to find a COVID-19 solution of our own amid the isolation, depression and decline during the pandemic.

It seems as if no matter the issue nowadays, tech is part of the answer. Although it might keep us annoyingly glued to our phones and have its downsides, it can be a powerful force for good as well.

The tech-tonic shift in how we can and should solve the issue.

In practical terms, turning to tech meant getting our residents onto Zoom and other video chat platforms as quickly as possible and being there to troubleshoot when issues occurred. Those face-to-face connections have a real effect on seniors’ moods, which often causes a trickle-down effect whereby they re-engage with the rest of their community and become more active. Yet relying on video chat alone isn’t enough. After all, even if residents’ families call them once or twice a day, there are many more hours they feel disconnected. And even if they are connected, they can feel unchallenged.

That’s where interactive gaming came in. Yes, basically video games. 

In our search to go beyond creating video chat connections a couple of times a day, we discovered a platform called Obie. The platform has been our tech answer and is part of a broader industry of tech-driven devices and innovations explicitly created for seniors. In our facility’s research into tech, we stumbled across an incredible stat — the senior-specific market for tech is estimated to reach $900 million by 2022, and it’s not difficult to see why.

Tom and Fred have taken to playing “interactive games for seniors” and get moving from their rooms to a table in the common room to choose from dozens of games. The results are astonishing. We’ve observed significant improvements in the moods of Tom, Fred and several other residents, more physical activity to move to and from, slowing cognitive decline, and in some cases, even noticeable improvements. 

In line with COVID-19 regulations, these interactive games don’t require contact. No longer do seniors have to touch a shared set of cards or dice. Staff members now just have to clean the table surface on which the games are projected.

These games have given residents joy and happiness in a time where many have lost a sense of purpose. It’s not just another computer game. It’s an experience that has changed the way people in senior living and care centers interact with one another.

Tech can’t reverse time and for Bernie, it won’t be the remedy it has been for others. Even Bernie, however, has been able to sit with his friends at a table and have a good game together with his friend, the famous smile we missed during most of the pandemic now visible to all.

Although times will remain incredibly challenging for seniors, advances in tech can work wonders and must be treated as vaccines against loneliness and cognitive and physical decline. It may seem ridiculous to think of a gaming grandpa. Still, tech built for seniors has a bright future, and this pandemic should make exploring that potential a priority for care facilities across the country. These seniors have borne so much responsibility for us during their lives; it’s time we returned the favor.