Modern technology has become a saving grace for many who are trying to remain safe and responsible until the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic abate.
Trips to the grocery store have been replaced with online orders and home delivery. Happy hours and family get-togethers now occur through video conferencing apps like Zoom. Medical checkups are increasingly virtual.
Though these solutions decrease the risk of coronavirus transmission, not everyone has equal access to them. Senior citizens in particular are more likely to face barriers – everything from unfamiliarity with the technology to hearing and vision loss and dementia – that make interacting with the world through a screen more challenging.
Even with retiree interest group AARP reporting in January that generational gaps in technology usage are narrowing, there is concern that too many seniors are being left behind, leading to increased health risks and isolation.
Presently, a handful of local companies are working to address some of the challenges facing seniors as they try to navigate the virtual world during the pandemic.
Midlothian-based Remote Health Solutions has seen a 50% increase in seniors utilizing its remote patient monitoring technology since the pandemic hit. Through RHS’ devices, some people with chronic illnesses or those who require in-home elderly care can monitor their own health at home instead of visiting doctors’ offices or requiring hospitalization.
The devices monitor health readings like blood pressure, body temperature and oxygen saturation in blood, then upload the data via Bluetooth wireless technology to an online portal. On the other end, an RHS nurse makes sure those vital signs stay within the health parameters for that patient. Should something be amiss, RHS can alert a patient’s doctor.
Not only does the remote monitoring reduce in-person visits to medical professionals, but the data can help bridge information gaps between different physicians caring for the same patient.
“[We’ve] had a really great success in the reduction of hospitalizations,” says Sean Sullivan, RHS’ director of business development. “It’s not a 6-month checkup for someone that’s recovering from a heart attack. It’s a daily monitoring.”
Since the pandemic hit, Sullivan says the telehealth industry has experienced a sudden increase in patients who are embracing this technology. In a July 2020 survey by healthinsurance.com, seniors reported a 300% increase in the use of telemedicine services since the pandemic hit .
“The numbers and statistics are staggering. We definitely have seen an increase, but the industry has just exploded,” he says. “In the beginning of the pandemic, immediately people looked to telehealth as an amazing tool, frankly, that continued to provide care so that people could still see their doctor, still socially distance, still maintain the same level of care that they would get in a physical checkup. You can give them the efficacy of an in-person visit using diagnostic medical tools without ever leaving their home.”
Sullivan and Melissa White, president of RHS Services, say their tools have created peace of mind for patients.
“It’s really provided them that sense of ease in knowing that they’re able to receive care without having to get exposed to the virus and having to go out unless it’s a medically necessary, emergent thing,” says White.
RHS’ kits are tailor-made to each patient, and are built with senior patients in mind. Each device is already paired and programmed, so all a patient has to do is turn it on. The devices feature large icons to help patients who may have vision or cognitive impairments; should a patient have an issue, they can contact their assigned nurse for help. Sullivan and White say their patients have rarely experienced problems using their devices.
Though not solely focused on providing telehealth opportunities for its clients, Midlothian-based managed service provider Networking Technologies + Support offers technology options that can assist seniors. One such option allows family members to directly dial into a senior’s television and receive instant access.
“A family member can dial in without the requirement of even the owner saying, ‘Accept the call,’ so [family members] can get a visual. Are they laying on the floor? Do they look healthy?” says Brent Kranda, vice president of infrastructure services for NTS. Alternatively, NTS programming can be set up to allow the call after a senior gives a voice command.
One NTS technology package allows for health monitoring, where seniors can track their own health using EKG pads and a smartphone. If a user isn’t feeling well, they can easily send the data to a doctor or family member. Because NTS technology is built to adapt to standard hardware, a family member can easily replace it with a store-bought device.
For seniors who don’t wish to move to an assisted living community, Kranda says the technology is an affordable way to allow independence while still letting family members check in unobtrusively.
Chuck Renfro, CEO of Chesterfield-based Thinking CAP Technologies, says the pandemic is increasing isolation for seniors, and expects more seniors to embrace telehealth solutions as the pandemic continues. Through his company, Renfro has spent the past seven years coaching seniors on how to navigate the digital realm, including working with the county to teach classes on topics like how to utilize smartphones and communicate with grandkids using the iPhone app FaceTime.
Renfro, 71, started Thinking CAP Technologies in 2007 as a computer networking company, but pivoted to teaching seniors after attending an event in Henrico where a speaker instructed the audience to visit a website to learn more about Medicaid. Some seniors raised their hands, inquiring about how to use the internet.
Seniors who don’t know how to take advantage of modern technology run the risk of isolation, Renfro says, especially during the pandemic. Technology can serve as a way to safely communicate with family, play games, find entertainment and seek information.
“It’s fun to see the lightbulbs go off in their eyes,” when his students master a new digital tool, he says. “They go, ‘Now I get it!’ It’s a rewarding situation.”
So far, Renfro says he’s only had one client ask for help installing a video conferencing app in order to have a remote appointment with their doctor. On a more personal level, he says he recently helped his wife operate a similar video conferencing app to interact digitally with her doctor. Though the appointment was only to renew a prescription, the doctor preferred a video conference instead of one by phone.
“The doctor just said, ‘I want to see you face-to-face and see if you’re doing okay,’” Renfro says. ¦