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Nursing homes and assisted living facilities have felt some of the worst effects of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are linked to nursing homes. Nearly all facilities have been under lockdown since March; under guidelines issued by the CDC and state agencies, nursing homes will be among the last to reopen after the pandemic subsides.

Loneliness is of grave concern for elder care advocates. Studies have shown that social isolation is associated with an increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline. With that in mind, assisted living facilities and nursing homes are tasked to achieve a difficult balancing act of keeping residents safe from coronavirus while lessening the negative effects of social distancing.  

There have been a few glimmers of hope recently. In some states, like New York for example, where infection data supports reopening measures, facilities are starting to allow visitation if they have been without COVID-19 for at least 28 days. In other places, facilities have opened patios for outdoor visitation during nice summer weather. However, in locations that have been hard hit by coronavirus outbreaks, it might be a matter of years before residents living in some nursing home or skilled care facility are able to visit with their loved ones face to face.

Teleconferencing for seniors to the rescue

Much like in schools and offices, technology for teleconferencing is coming to the rescue in nursing homes. In many states, residents living in nursing homes and care facilities have the right to receive visitors, and family members have a right to visit. With facilities closed to outsiders, visitation is carried out through a window glass or a video call through Zoom or Skype or FaceTime.

Many facilities have taken proactive steps to encourage digital congregation with their loved ones and other residents. For example, Oakmont Senior Living, which has locations throughout California and in the Las Vegas area, offers a broad range of programming over Zoom. Think of traditional retirement home faire in an online format—activities include trivia, bingo, and other games, book club, and scheduled video calls with loved ones.

Government and nonprofits stepping up

Unfortunately, not every facility is as forward thinking. In recognizing the challenges that seniors and facilities are facing, states and advocacy groups are stepping up to put technology in seniors’ hands. Several programs have arisen in the southern and western parts of the country hit particularly hard by coronavirus.    

The state of Florida is working with the Alzheimer’s Association to give computer tablets to 150 nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as part of the state’s Project: VITAL program. Each facility will receive funding for two tablets. Residents at the facilities each have their own profile on the shared tablets, and have access to their own pictures, TV shows and movies, and the opportunity video chat and email loved ones. For the approximately two-thirds of residents who suffer from dementia, the Association offers specific programming for residents as well as their caretakers.

Naturally, Texas is going a little bigger. Governor Greg Abbott and the state’s Health and Human Services Commission has pledged $3.6 million for nursing facilities to purchase tablets, webcams, and headphones to connect residents with their loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state is encouraging care facilities and providers to apply for $3,000 in federal funding per facility for purchasing communication technology devices.

In one a heartwarming story, a care facility in eastern Texas helped an elderly resident videoconference into her great-granddaughter’s wedding celebration. The family called the care facility for help connecting to the 89-year-old resident, and they accommodated the video using a new mobile teleconferencing station that they roll from room to room on a cart.

One simple way to set up a similar solution is to use a rolling TV cart with middle shelf. A large display on top shows video from a laptop computer that is connect to the facility’s Wi-Fi network handling the video call.  

Tablets, smart display hubs, and other solutions for seniors

Another tool that helps seniors connect with their loved ones are smart display hubs. Nonprofit advocacy groups like Families for Better Care recommend placing an Amazon Echo Show in the rooms of residents in assist living facilities. Family members can “drop in” on their loved one with an instant video call. This is ideal for nursing home residents because hubs can be configured so that calls do not require residents to open apps or press buttons to make or receive calls. Since these devices are voice activated and have cameras, care facilities will need to sign off on their use due to issues related to privacy and HIPAA concerns.

Assisted living providers have a few important factors to keep in mind about the best device for seniors to use to keep in touch. Something with a large screen and big icons is naturally a better fit for elderly users. But truthfully, almost anything will work provided that personnel have the basic technical aptitude to add devices to a Wi-Fi network, install a video conferencing solution, and schedule times for residents to use them with their families.  One nonprofit in northern California called Project Tablet Turnover is collecting donated iPads and Android tablets, wiping the data, installing messaging software, and donating them into nursing homes in the area.  

Browse and compare tablets for seniors on NeweggBusiness

Technology provides a fix while we all whether the pandemic, but by itself is not enough. Care facilities need to be active and organized about helping residents operate the technology so they can connect with loved ones while keeping at a safe distance.   

Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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