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By Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan
Human connection is essential for all of us. In fact, social isolation can be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can lead to other serious health problems. COVID-19 restrictions and quarantine measures over the past year and a half have impacted everyone: individuals had to decrease social gatherings, limit visits with loved ones, and adjust to an overall lack of connectivity. Although the drastic changes were difficult for everyone, they were especially hard hitting for older adults, and exacerbated the already existing social isolation crisis they face.
“This is an already vulnerable population with often small social circles due to loss of friends, family, and mobility and transportation issues. In the setting of COVID-19, many lost their small but precious social interactions.”
—Dr. Leah Richler, psychiatrist, UMass Memorial Health
According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), more than one third of adults aged 45 years and older feel lonely, and nearly one fourth of adults aged 65 years and older are considered to be socially isolated. The links between health and social connection among the senior population are unique, therefore the solutions to help conquer these challenges must be equally innovative and agile.
The impact of social isolation on seniors
Social isolation and loneliness can significantly impact mental health and overall well-being. Research has shown that social isolation and loneliness can increase older adults’ risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and other serious health conditions. Additionally, when older adults don’t have a companion or someone checking up on them, it can further deteriorate their health.
“Throughout the pandemic, I have seen many independent seniors lose their usual supports — family, friends, groups, day programs, etc. — due to COVID-related restrictions, and therefore decompensated. As a result, many needed admission to the hospital or a long-term care facility to continue to meet their needs. When no one was able to check in on them, people often missed medications and meals, became ill or fell in their home.”
Being homebound, whether it’s due to illness, COVID-related restrictions, or lack of transportation, can make seniors feel like they are missing out and not connected to the rest of the world. However, solutions and programs throughout New England are helping seniors combat social isolation and stay connected.
Promoting and supporting socialization in seniors
Seeing the strong correlation between senior social engagement and overall well-being, several local New England companies have found ways to meet seniors where they are. Regardless of location or technological skill level, these organizations are providing older adults with opportunities to engage with others and keep their minds nimble.
Connecting through virtual reality
Since 2016, Somerville-based Rendever has been empowering seniors to have new experiences and connect with others through virtual reality (VR). Rendever provides the equipment and training for senior living operators and health care organizations, opening up a new world of possibilities for older adults. Through VR simulations, residents can virtually visit sentimental landmarks like their childhood home, explore their ideal vacation spot, or walk through a host of different activities, such as fitness workshops and mindfulness sessions.
Rendever is currently being used by a variety of senior living operators, including Benchmark, and other leading health care systems. According to a study conducted with MIT AgeLab and Benchmark, residents who participated in daily Rendever group sessions saw significant improvements in measures of their social health.
Solving for hearing loss
For many seniors, in the last year or so, social distancing and quarantine have been the main hurdles that they must overcome in the pursuit of connection. For others that may be homebound full time or have disabilities, such as hearing loss, it can be harder to find ways to stay connected and avoid feeling socially isolated. Seniors who experience hearing loss may avoid social situations to steer clear of embarrassment or criticism for not being able to hear or follow along during conversations. This is why some assisted living facilities have invested in headphones from Boston-based Eversound for their residents.
Eversound headphones operate similarly to a phone, but volume can be amplified to more specific and appropriate levels depending on hearing needs and are also compatible with all types of hearing aids. Because of the headphones’ encrypted wireless signal, they can work across different rooms and spaces, keeping residents connected even if they aren’t in close proximity to one another. Through Eversound, assisted living facilities can help residents stay engaged with family and loved ones while accommodating various hearing disabilities.
Advancements in technology have made it possible for more seniors to stay connected, both to people and ‘special’ furry friends. Rhode Island-based Ageless Innovation has been adding meaningful connections back into senior lives. The company creates robotic companion pets — complete with lifelike fur and vocal tendencies similar to what a dog or cat would have — that are interactive and social just like a live pet. These pets are meaningful companion solutions for elders who live in apartments and facilities that do not allow pets, as well as for older adults who may not have the ability or financial means to take care of a live animal.
“Social connection can give older adults a sense of security and safety, and a sense of presence in our society. It can help normalize feelings and experiences, and provide support through difficult times.”
Care programs for senior socialization
While technological solutions have been created and adapted to support seniors, especially in difficult times when socializing is needed most, other support options are also available.
FriendshipWorks is a community-based nonprofit operating in Greater Boston that for 37 years has been connecting volunteers with older adults in need of assistance or companionship. The organization currently serves more than 1,700 older adults annually throughout Boston, Cambridge, Newton, Brookline, and Somerville with the help of more than 650 volunteers providing friendship, support, and assistance.
“We are very strong believers in being in-person, and that proximity makes a difference. Nothing can replace human interaction — it really provides a sense of comfort to people. While the pandemic certainly impacted a lot of our in-person programs and initiatives, we were able to pivot to still serve those in the community.”
— Janet Seckel-Cerrotti, executive director, FriendshipWorks
FriendshipWorks has remained vigilant and agile throughout the pandemic, and has found adaptive ways for volunteers and seniors to remain connected in a number of ways. Their Friendly Visitor program connected elders and volunteers by phone, letters and cards, and Zoom where possible. Their Friendly Helpers program delivered groceries, ran errands, and cleared pathways when it was snowing so older adults could get to their mailboxes to receive mail, pay bills, and participate in the Census and vote.
They continue to assist in other safe ways as well. FriendshipWorks offers a Medical Escort program to help older adults attend their medical appointments; a MusicWorks program that holds outdoor concerts; a pop-up card-making initiative that has delivered more than 2,000 cards and letters to isolated older adults; as well as a PetPals program through which volunteers and their trained pets visit assisted living and nursing homes to spend time with seniors.
“For people who can’t get out, we try to bring the world to them. Our worlds can become very narrow, and I don’t think anything can or should replace face-to-face interaction. Not only is bringing friendship and joy into people’s lives important, but also making sure they have access to what’s around them can really make a difference in someone’s life who maybe lives alone or needs some friendly encouragement to go out.”
New innovations have the capacity to promote interactions that would otherwise be difficult, and offer unique experiences for elders to enjoy together. However, this does not diminish the need for direct and personalized care. For example, Landmark Health’s coordinated care program supports chronically ill seniors with complex health needs. Through Landmark Health, physicians and other medical professionals work together to provide holistic care regimens to seniors — which includes the use of dietitians, behavioral health clinicians, and social workers, among other professionals. Harvard Pilgrim and Tufts Health Plan members eligible for the Landmark program have access to 24/7 care, including weekends and holidays.
Older adults who have a rich social life can have better health outcomes and more enriching lives. As more people age, social enrichment and connectedness, whether it’s in-person or through other means of communication, is essential to ensure older adults don’t feel alone and have the support they need.
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