Isolation isn’t just about loneliness and an inability to connect with other people; it can have serious health effects as well. Providers are using social connectedness technology to help bridge the social and wellness gap.
Large numbers of older adults live in social isolation, which can adversely affect their lives, increasing cardiovascular risk, mortality and health care costs. LeadingAge members have taken steps to encourage social engagement.
“One of the things that matters most to successful aging is socialization,” says Lisa Fischetti, senior director of communications at Presbyterian SeniorCare Network, operator of Longwood at Oakmont, a life plan community near Pittsburgh, PA, which has implemented a Touchtown app that promotes residents’ connections.
“Studies show the importance of being able to connect with others and for people as they age to still have meaning and purpose in life,” Fischetti adds. “Those connections with people help to stimulate and inspire. It helps brain connections when you socialize.”
A 2012 report from the AARP Foundation indicated 17% of adults age 65 and older are isolated. Multiple studies have investigated the dangers of isolation. In 2015, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, at Brigham Young University, and colleagues reported that loneliness and social isolation were risk factors for mortality. A year later, she published a paper indicating loneliness and social isolation were risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Lynda Flowers, at the AARP Public Policy Institute, and colleagues found that Medicare spends more each month for older adults who are socially isolated.
Recognizing the dangers of social isolation, LeadingAge members have implemented technologies that aim to promote social engagement.
MyLAO Connecting Residents
Longwood at Oakmont helped to pilot the Touchtown app, which its residents fondly refer to as MyLAO.
“It brought people together in a new way,” Fischetti says. “We are committed to enriching the aging experience through person-centered living.”
The app helps make the mission a reality.
“We are about ensuring everyone ages successfully,” Fischetti says.
MyLAO operates on a tablet, computer, smartphone and Amazon Echo. It features content about the community—dining menus, activities, the weather report, a resident directory, committee meetings, memorials, new policies and fitness videos. Family members also can access the app if the resident shares his or her password.
“There are lots of engagement opportunities, so it, hopefully, encourages people to take the dance class or go to a lecture,” says Janis Ramey, a resident of Longwood at Oakmont. “The [residents’] kids encourage some of the more reluctant [residents to participate].”
Longwood at Oakmont experienced a 28% increase in participation in physical wellness activities after implementing MyLAO.
Additionally, residents can request maintenance or send a compliment about a staff member to his or her supervisor.
“Once people start using the MyLAO app, they become more relaxed with their iPad or smartphone, and start using email or Facebook,” Ramey says.
Longwood at Oakmont also has installed a kiosk in a public area, for people who do not own electronic devices. For those who do and struggle to adapt, residents on the Technology Committee offer support to other residents to help them learn how to use their devices and the app.
“It brought together people and generated more interest in technology,” Fischetti says. “It has rallied residents around a common goal.”
Birdsong Bringing Joy
Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay, a life plan community in Virginia Beach, VA, introduced the Birdsong medical-grade tablet and software to residents of its skilled nursing center as part of a research study to learn if a digital tablet, easy for people with a variety of functional limitations, could help with social engagement. The organization partnered with TMM Software, a global health technology company based in France, to create the tablet. It has been a resounding success, with increases in quality of life and decreases in depression.
“We receive testimonials from residents of how the Birdsong tablet has made them happy, and they do not feel isolated anymore,” says Aisha Azher, coordinator of the Birdsong Initiative at Westminster-Canterbury. “They are able to explore what they are passionate about. Residents get a window to the world and can access anything.”
That matches with the community’s mission of creating community to foster joy and well-being.
“The user interface is made with older adults in mind,” Azher says. “Everything is user-friendly.”
It’s a picture-based system with large icons. Westminster-Canterbury loads the tablets with music, television shows, movies, games and jigsaw puzzles.
The community brought in high school students to teach older adults how to use the tablets and find things of interest. The intergenerational approach allowed residents time to interact with the young people, form bonds and mentor the students.
“The sharing is very compatible,” Azher reports. “On the first visit, they get to know each other. Once the residents and high school student volunteers have formed good relationships, the residents are more willing to try new things. The students have been instrumental in getting the resident to give it a try.”
The study concluded that participants experienced lower depression rates after using the Birdsong tablet. They also reported greater life satisfaction and well-being.
The tablets also have RFID functionality, so nurses can scan their badge and document care at the bedside.
“Since we are focused on engagement, we wanted to use the tablet to bring nurses from their offices to the residents’ rooms,” Azher says. “Our residents now have more access to our staff, which is going to increase well-being.”
Westminster-Canterbury on Chesapeake Bay now sells the system to other communities, with plans to sell them to individual residents in other locations. The next version will accept voice commands.
Putting Avatars to Good Use
Element Care, a Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) in Lynn, MA, piloted a project with Millbrae, CA-based care.coach, creators of a system using companion avatars to provide participants with 24-hours-a-day support and wellness coaching. The program has now expanded to 30 people.
“We use the avatars to support our overall mission, particularly after hours, weekends and holidays,” says Kendra Seavey, clinical administrative manager at Element Care. “Our participants develop a great relationship with their avatar.”
The participant can select a dog or cat for the avatar, which the patient names, helping forge the relationship. On the other end of the screen is a person, a health advocate, who logs interactions, customizes services to the individual, and can recognize if the participant is feeling down or anxious and respond accordingly. The avatar may play games with, or music for, the participant.
“Participants create relationships that are helpful, someone to come home to and update their life experiences,” Seavey reports. “It’s a judgment-free zone, where the person can talk with their avatar.”
The health advocate follows protocols, based on the participant’s diagnosis, when interacting with the participant and has the ability to go off script when necessary. Advocates also can call an Element Care nurse for any health concerns. For example, if a participant falls, the avatar will connect with the nurse for immediate reporting and find out what action should be taken.
Participants are connected with an avatar for different reasons, Seavey says. The nurse may recommend it to provide medication reminders or for companionship and to reduce anxiety and promote social interactions.
Element Care continues to add avatars and tries using it to help in different situations, such as for exercise and nutrition support and other daily reminders. Our results have shown that the avatars can even help relieve families’ caregiving burdens, Seavey says.
The organization has experienced fewer emergency department visits and nursing and personal care visits by people who have an avatar. Participants enjoy greater social support and report improved quality of life and less loneliness and anxiety.
“Our mission is to help people live safely and comfortably in their homes for as long as possible,” Seavey says. “Our avatar program has allowed us to provide enhanced psychosocial support in the home, encourage self-managing of chronic conditions, promote socialization and reduce anxiety. The avatar is one more team member who assists in our mission.”
Informing Residents About Community
Galloway Ridge at Fearrington, a life plan community in Pittsboro, NC, installed a resident engagement system from Senior Portal to give residents access to information happening in the community, such as registering for events, dining information, ordering home delivery of meals, posting of notifications from management, requesting transportation or maintenance, and accessing the resident directory.
“We exist to inspire meaningful, engaged lives and to assure each resident a superior quality of life and care,” says Missy Johnson, senior director of marketing and sales at Galloway Ridge. “To make our community best in class, we need to build and sustain technology competence.”
The cloud-based portal works on computers, mobile devices and the Amazon Echo Senior Portal Skill system, which allows for barrier-free access to the information for those with motor or visual challenges.
“We believe voice-recognition technology is the most inclusive technology available to an older population,” Johnson says. “It created a lot of excitement.”
When Galloway Ridge attempted to pilot the Echo system with 30 residents, 50 people showed up. It proved so popular, residents and their children started purchasing Amazon Echo, taxing the community’s Wi-Fi network.
The resident communication committee oversees the information on the portal. Residents often instruct their neighbors in how to use the portal.
Galloway Ridge has hired a senior director of technology innovation, developed a technology strategic plan and conducted a resident survey about their use of technology. (And the organization aims to boost its Wi-Fi signal.)
The portal encourages connections and improves residents’ quality of life at Galloway Ridge.
“We are leveraging technology to provide best-in-class service to our residents,” Johnson concludes. “We are making a huge commitment to technology, because it will be part of our lives going forward.”
Editor’s note: LeadingAge’s Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST) has a useful Social Connectedness and Engagement Technology Online Tool with: a primer on how to evaluate available products; a selection tool to learn more about which products match your needs; and valuable case studies, including several offering more detail on members included in this article.
Debra Wood, R.N., is a writer living in Orlando, FL.