In almost 21,000 senior living units across the United States, administrators have been challenged to address the complex care requirements of their residents, some of the hardest-hit groups during the coronavirus pandemic. They are now beginning to recognize that adopting telehealth solutions is an effective way to cope not only with the fragile mental and physical state of many of their residents’ health, but also to provide appropriate care with limited interaction from the outside world.

Given the scale and magnitude of the pandemic, concern existed about a mental health crisis among older adults. Older adults experienced disproportionately greater adverse effects, including more severe complications, higher mortality, concerns about disruptions to their daily routines, access to care and social isolation from friends and relatives when contact became limited.

For these individuals, administrators are optimizing the use of telehealth to address behavioral and mental health challenges, many of which arose during the pandemic. Poor mental health negatively affects physical health and life expectancies. Individuals with mental health conditions can have an increase in respiratory disease, heart disease and cancer risk because they are less likely to seek care for their physical health.

Behavioral telehealth allows for expanded consumer engagement and enables community and facility leaders to remotely manage many aspects of mental health by collaborating with digital and telehealth specialists, as well as geriatric clinicians. 

Value of behavioral telehealth

Many long-term care centers offered residents suffering from depression and isolation during the pandemic the option for ongoing one-on-one telehealth counseling with psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers. Dispelling the perception that these facilities shun the use of high-tech in long-term care, many locations successfully handled virtual physician visits, as well as other types of virtual visits, including mental health providers.

Thanks to telehealth, a senior living and care community can connect with a doctor, nurse or mental health professionals in real time and in many cases eliminate the need for a transport to the hospital or the clinic. Studies have shown that approximately 60% to 70% of all nursing home transfers to the hospital are unnecessary, and similar statistics are seen in assisted living. Sending an older adult to the hospital only increases costs, medical tests and attention by medical staff, not to mention the risk of exposure to other illnesses and infections.

During the pandemic and going forward, older adults not only used digital health solutions as the key components of their healthcare experiences but said they actually preferred this option. Telehealth is helping seniors maintain their mental/behavioral and physical health and supports those who are overseeing their care in senior living communities. This positive trend is only expected to continue since telehealth was so widely adopted.

Assessing telehealth options

Leadership teams at senior living and care communities report that using telehealth for mental health services is very doable and relatively low-tech. Easy set-up with a reliable telehealth partner can make the experience stress-free for both administrators and patients. 

Those options include:

  • Emergent situations, such as risk assessment related to suicidal ideation, may be well-suited to telehealth as a resident can often be seen — and a safety plan can be put in place — much more quickly.  
  • When an acute change in a resident’s behavior or emotional status occurs that can’t wait for the next routine visit from the mental health provider, telehealth may be an option.
  • Common mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and adjustment disorders, have been found to be well-treated via telehealth.
  • Telehealth can open opportunities for providing culturally appropriate treatment accommodations by increasing access to a larger network of providers.
  • Residents who reside where there is a shortage of treatment providers, such as rural areas, may benefit from having access to telehealth services as a means of ensuring consistent psychological services.

Choosing the optimal telehealth solution for seniors

Many digital health solutions are on the market, but not all are the same. The best solution needs to be fully customizable and tailored to meet the needs of a senior population, allowing residents to engage with physicians and team-based care and to be able to receive more personalized attention and monitor their health, no matter their location or circumstance. The right solution also needs to collaborate and communicate with caregivers and community partners such other long-term facilities, dialysis centers, clinics and others.

The optimal platform combines telehealth with an integrated, patient-centered medical home strategy that securely manages appropriate provider visits and behavioral health virtual care. Other components can include diagnostic services such as at-home lab and on-site testing and more.

The benefits of telehealth are now being recognized, especially for behavioral health issues, as technologies advance for individual use. Now that digital solutions and virtual care visits have become part of the care delivery system, it will be exciting to see what comes next to improve care outcomes among seniors.

Michael Gorton, MS, JD, is the CEO and founder of Recuro Health and the founding CEO and chairman of Teladoc.

The opinions expressed in each McKnight’s Senior Living marketplace column are those of the author and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Senior Living.