So, you and your family have decided (or have been forced) to practice social distancing to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. That’s the right thing to do. But it also means, by definition, that you won’t be seeing much of people outside of your household for a while. And that could be an issue, too.
The good news is that, compared to past pandemics, there’s new technology that helps keep us together even when we have to be apart. The bad news is that the people who need those services the most — older adults — may also be the least able to take advantage of them. And while not all older people have problems using new technology, they are more likely to have trouble than any other generation. They’re also the people who are more likely to be affected by social isolation, which has a myriad of negative health effects all on its own.
With the Centers for Disease Control recommending that seniors stay home as much as possible due to the virus’s higher fatality rate for people ages 60 and above, we asked a few experts about what tech older adults should learn to use to stave off loneliness and stay healthy while ensuring that their needs are met.
Keeping in touch
Communication is perhaps the most important thing for older people to do during these isolated times. This is not only essential for their physical health — if older people start exhibiting symptoms, they should contact a doctor or go to the hospital — but it’s also essential for their mental health to keep in touch with loved ones.
“At this moment in time, we’re not just combating the coronavirus, but we’re combating fear and anxiety and social isolation as well,” Bill Walsh, vice president of communications at AARP, told Recode. “So it’s important to stay in touch with your loved ones and let them know that they haven’t been cut off or somehow marginalized.”
Amie Clark, co-founder of TheSeniorList.com, told Recode that she recommends devices that are specifically geared to older people to lower their barrier to entry. For example, a tablet like GrandPad should make the process of video calling and sharing photos as easy as it can possibly be. For seniors who can navigate a smartphone, Clark recommends apps like Facebook Messenger, Skype, and WhatsApp, which are “easy enough to set up and explain to all but the most technically disinclined.”
Walsh, from AARP, says apps that let loved ones to see as well as hear each other, like FaceTime or Skype, have the added bonus of letting you see how stressed your loved one looks and if they’re keeping up their home “which is often an indication of their health,” Walsh said. “We can get a lot of insight that way.”
Shopping for food and supplies
We all need food and other supplies. But it’s riskier for older adults to go out to physical stores to get them, because it increases the chances they’ll come into contact with the virus. Websites and apps allow them to shop for and order those items without having to step foot inside a building.
“Food delivery services and mail order pharmacies are a really good idea these days,” Walsh said.
Websites like Amazon Fresh, Instacart, Fresh Direct, and Peapod are all good ways to order food. Meanwhile, Amazon is prioritizing essential items like household goods and medical supplies to make sure they stay in stock and ship quickly. Most stores have online ordering options these days, too.
“The user experience for these services has gotten much better in recent years, even for the technology-challenged,” Clark said. Just remember that these services are especially strained at the moment and orders may take longer than usual to arrive — if they can be fulfilled at all.
With restaurants completely shutting down their dining rooms in favor of takeout or delivery options in many areas, restaurant delivery apps and websites may be an appealing option for hungry seniors. There are also meal kit delivery services, like Blue Apron as well as some that are geared to seniors and specialized diet needs. But these can be more expensive than ordering and preparing the raw materials, which could be a significant consideration for people on a fixed income. Of course, Meals on Wheels is always an option (though they, too, are having supply issues).
Being cooped up inside the house may be especially difficult for seniors who are used to going out to stay active. With senior centers that offer exercise classes and equipment shuttered, regular gyms closed, and other group exercise activities like mall walks called off for the foreseeable future, seniors can turn to technology to stay moving. Clark recommends searching YouTube for senior-focused exercise videos. The National Institute on Aging has a series called Go4Life, and the AARP offers fitness videos, too.
Staying fit isn’t the only health concern for older people, especially these days. Seniors generally have more health problems and needs than younger people, and trying to stay healthy is why we’re all in this situation in the first place. Tech can help there, too. Clark recommends some kind of medical alert system for seniors with underlying health issues. There are many, they’ve been around for a long time, and can be as simple to use as pushing a button — no learning curve there — to the more complicated smartwatches.
Getting and keeping track of prescription drugs can be done through several apps. Medisafe reminds users to take their medications, while CareZone uses a device’s camera to scan medication prescription labels so it can remind the user when to take and refill them.
Some apps may be useful from a caregiver’s perspective, too. Apps like Lotsa Helping Hands and Caring Village let caregivers and family members (and these are often one and the same) create groups to organize and share duties for someone who needs the extra help.
“You can assign tasks, make sure things are getting done, send reminders, schedule meals,” Walsh said. “But there’s also some fun lifestyle stuff. You can share photos and updates, too. It really helps create a little more cohesion around the virtual village that you’re trying to create.”
Finally, telemedicine services allow people to virtually consult with their doctor and other health professionals, reducing the need to seek medical attention in person. Medicare recently expanded its telemedicine coverage (including relaxing patient confidentiality rules so that apps like Skype, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger can be used) for this reason, with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Seema Verma urging people to help older loved ones navigate the technology needed to take advantage of the program if they couldn’t do it for themselves.
“If it’s your mom, you may need to go over to her house to help her do this,” she said. “Bring your smartphone — but remember, don’t visit if you’re feeling sick.”
Ultimately, all of these tech solutions are only as helpful as a senior’s ability and desire to actually use them. If your loved one just can’t get the hang of apps and devices — or simply doesn’t want to bother with them — don’t fret. Your grandmother may never get the hang of using an iPhone, but she almost certainly knows how to use a regular phone; she’s probably been using one her entire life. She can always call stores and restaurants to order supplies and food for delivery, or call a tech-savvy loved one to make the online order for her.
And, of course, you can always call her. She’d probably love to hear your voice.