Empowering Seniors Through Technology: A Conversation with Connections at Home

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In an era where technology seemingly shapes every facet of our lives, its potential to revolutionize the care and well-being of seniors often goes underappreciated. To delve deeper into this intersection, we talked to Alex Kent, the Executive Director at Connections at Home, an organization dedicated to utilizing technology to enhance the lives of seniors.

Here’s what Alex had to say.

Can you share with us a specific example of how technology has positively impacted the lives of seniors within your organization?

“There are multiple examples of how technology has impacted our clients in a positive way.  Some that come to mind include learning how to order online groceries via Shoprite From Home or another vendor, allowing them to be able to choose their own food products while not having to get on a shuttle bus to go shopping or rely on a food service like Meals on Wheels.  This gives them autonomy and independence without the stress of having to physically deal with the chore.

Many of our clients attend their church services via Zoom, something that has become commonplace since COVID.  Houses of Worship stepped up their outreach, and now most of them provide this service.     We also have a client who teaches Bible Study classes using his tablet.

Playing online games like Solitaire is a popular pastime that keeps their minds engaged.

What are some common challenges seniors face in adapting to new technologies, and how does Connections at Home address these challenges?

“Many of our seniors have never used a tablet or computer before, so it can be a bit daunting at first.  When we bring them their device, we give them a training session, and then their social worker checks in with them every few weeks to follow up and see if they have any questions about their tech.   The tablet and the computer that we provide both have a support helpline that we pay for, and our clients are able to access those at any time.   Those services work exclusively with seniors and are very good about showing them the ropes.   There is also a user’s manual that comes with the computer, and the two devices are specifically designed for seniors with little tech experience, so everything is very simple and intuitive.”

Could you describe the process Connections at Home follows to select and implement technology solutions for seniors?

“When selecting a new client, we assess their level of social isolation.  They need to be over 65, live alone, and not own a car to participate.    We get referrals from various sources including food pantries, senior buildings, senior organizations, medical practices, and friends and family of the older adult.  After speaking to the senior, and verifying that they are truly isolated, we determine whether a tablet or a desktop or laptop computer will work best for them.   We also find out their Wi-Fi situation and help them get low-cost Wi-Fi for low-income users that the government subsidizes.”

In what ways does technology enhance the quality of life for seniors under your care?

“We assess each new client for social isolation, loneliness, and mental health when they join our program, using evidence-based survey tools.   We repeat those questionnaires every 9 months, so we have clear-cut data on the difference we have made.  Overall, about 70% of our clients show improvement in those areas.   They also benefit greatly from their relationship with their social worker, who checks in with them regularly and shares resources that can improve the quality of their lives.   The social workers also serve as a shoulder to lean on and a friendly voice on the phone, who the client can count on for regular interaction, even if they are just feeling lonely or sad on a given day.”

Can you discuss any innovative technology initiatives your organization has introduced recently to improve senior care services?

“The tablet product we use, the GrandPad, has a Portal that allows us to monitor our clients’ tablet usage.   We are able to see if their battery is getting low or if they haven’t been using it much, and we can follow up to find out why and address their issues.   We are also able to see which applications they spend time on, and our social workers can use that as a starting point for a conversation.   Sometimes, a lack of usage can reflect ill health or depression, so our staff is able to find out what is going on and help direct the senior towards help.”

What role does technology play in fostering connections and reducing social isolation among seniors who may lack a local support network?

“When a client joins our program and gets their tech device, we create an email account for them if needed, and also Facebook and Zoom, to expand their social interactions.   The tablet has an easy-to-use video chat function for contacts in their address book, so they can video chat with family at the touch of a button, see grandkids who live far away, and stay connected to children who live in other parts of the country.  The social workers encourage their clients to connect with their families, and they are able to re-establish links that may have fallen by the wayside.   One client enjoys watching videos from around the world so that she can virtually visit places she may have been to in the past.“

Have you encountered any resistance or skepticism from seniors regarding adopting new technologies, and if so, how do you address these concerns?

”Some seniors are nervous about getting started, but once they begin to use their device, they are usually quick learners.   We often have interns who are able to visit with our clients and give them ongoing tech support and encouragement. If a client truly finds the tech device too challenging, we will take it back and give it to another senior who is more receptive.  In that way, our tech devices are always being fully utilized.”

Looking ahead, what do you envision as the future of technology in supporting the needs of seniors, particularly those without a local network of support?

“There are many tech devices already in use that help loved ones, or medical personnel monitors a senior so that they are able to age in place and not have to go to a nursing home.   Sensors in the floor, the refrigerator, and the bathroom will send an alert if a person’s usual patterns have changed.    Robotic pets are becoming more popular, and with the advent of AI, they will get increasingly more realistic.  A pet has been shown to improve mental health, but sometimes, an actual animal can be too big of a responsibility.   It is surprising to see how positively seniors react to a robotic pet, and it does improve their mood.  Products such as Alexa make technology easier to use, with voice commands, and those devices are getting more and more accepted.”

Anything else we should know about?

“In many cases, older adults are written off as being too over the hill to take on new technology.  But we have found that not to be the case.  For the most part, they are eager to try new things and end up being very active screen users.   Prior to joining our program, many of our clients spent most of the day watching television, using it as a full-time companion.  With their tablet or computer, they are motivated to reach out to others and rekindle dialogues and relationships with those they no longer see.   It also improves the quality of their lives in the medical sense, as they can take advantage of telehealth and remote health monitoring via tools that measure such things as pulse, blood pressure, and glucose levels without having to leave their homes.  They can order medications online, and have them delivered, so they are seeing their physical health, as well as their mental healthcare become more seamless.”

Contrary to stereotypes, seniors are eager adopters of technology, embracing its potential to enrich their lives. With technology, they transcend the confines of their homes, forging new connections and easily accessing essential healthcare services.

In conclusion, technology isn’t just a tool; it’s a lifeline for seniors, offering companionship, empowerment, and access to vital resources. As organizations like Connections at Home continue to innovate and advocate, the future looks brighter for seniors, ensuring they age with dignity and independence.

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Learn more about Connections at Home here.