Caring for residents of senior living communities has grown increasingly complicated in recent months. Long before the coronavirus put a spotlight on the threat of isolation, however, healthcare professionals have been working to curb what largely is considered an epidemic in and of itself — one with as serious a health effect as smoking 15 cigarettes daily. Loneliness in older adults has been linked to poor health outcomes and, in some extreme circumstances, an increased risk of mortality.

Pressure is mounting on the professionals working in settings such as independent and assisted living, memory care and continuing care retirement communities to protect and care for a resident population considered to be at high risk for coronavirus. Although providers understandably are concerned about the health consequences of current separation measures, in addition to ensuring proper care management and preventive care, a number of tools are at our fingertips and can be leveraged to help connect vulnerable seniors with resources, information and support during this tumultuous time.

Many devices and “smart” solutions today are designed with younger, tech-savvy users in mind. More and more older adults are using technology for support amidst the coronavirus pandemic, however. Seniors are using social media applications, services such as Skype and FaceTime, and traditional telehealth avenues to stay connected as well as to receive care and support.

First and foremost, it is essential for communities to enhance their Wi-Fi system to provide a stable wireless connection for residents. Having a wireless infrastructure in place can support the adoption and use of devices that will improve their health and wellbeing.

Tapping into the value of virtual and telehealth

With the arrival of the novel coronavirus came the emergence of more virtual and remote care options to ensure that people can keep up with their care and manage chronic conditions safely from anywhere. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced a considerable expansion of such telehealth services covered by Medicare to include virtual office visits, mental health counseling and preventive health screenings. As part of the expansion, Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights relaxed HIPAA guidelines surrounding the use of video chat applications, including Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts, to help easily facilitate the delivery of virtual care.

Senior living professionals are in a unique situation to support residents in their use of telehealth, assisting with set-up of devices for appointments and often offering technology support. Additional services such as these may require flexibility in staffing and time allocation.

From check-ins with primary care physicians or consultations with specialists, virtual care and telehealth services prove essential to stay on track of one’s healthcare and help curb the spread of COVID-19 to best protect vulnerable senior populations.

Ultimately, enabling residents to engage in telehealth services may encourage their additional use of technology. From connecting with family members to using online tools for medication management and even exercise, having access to technology and the ability to use it will be paramount in remaining physically and mentally well.

Senior living communities can offer socially distanced group activities and / or coordinate with community resources that support residents’ use of virtual communication tools. Senior-friendly tools such as Portal from Facebook or Skype are relatively easy to use and offer a human-like engagement experience with their loved ones.

Companies such as GrandPad and Amazon Alexa are offering tools with large displays and easy-to-summon voice assistants, built just for older adults. These tools provide easy access to information and allow seniors to stay informed, organize daily tasks and keep up with scheduled appointments. Reminders and tracking tools can help ensure medication adherence to prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Studies suggest that voice assistants also may serve as digital companions, helping to alleviate feelings of loneliness that come with periods of social isolation as well.

Staying active when alone

Using the internet to find residents exercise helps keep people active when many communal group activities are on hold due to social distancing requirements. We know that physical movement improves mood and physical health outcomes. On-demand fitness solutions are abundantly available, including those tailored to the needs of older adults.

Chair-based exercises and / or light stretching can make a big difference. Virtual workout videos that can be completed in the comfort of any resident’s living space.

Sometimes, it can be overwhelming for older adults to choose from so many options, but once they get going in a routine, it can have massive physical and mental health benefits. Senior living professionals can encourage this practice and offer outside spaces for safe exercise, as possible.

Of course, nothing can replace in-person meetings and face-to-face interaction for residents. Technology allows us to join with others virtually, however, which is the next best thing. Senior living professionals must encourage and assist residents in becoming acclimated with virtual care and health engagement tools to keep them engaged now and in the event of future crises.