Alone, together – How technology is bridging the gap in times of Covid

18 January 2022

Pandemic times can be lonely times for those who live apart from their families. Whether you’re an elderly person living in a care home or a victim of the virus in isolation, keeping in touch with loved ones is key to preventing or staying on top of mental health issues.

In New Zealand rest homes and retirement villages are finding it difficult to maintain the balancing act between valuable family time and vital Covid health and safety protocols. Thankfully, as the saying goes, “there’s an app for that”.

Once the stuff of science fiction, video conferencing technology is now easy to access, even for those who are not savvy with devices. It can can be a lifesaver for isolated residents and patients.

As well as staying in touch with loved ones and meeting social and emotional needs, this line of communication also helps to foster and retain a sense of independence for folk who live alone, allowing them to make their own decisions about when and who to contact.

Some will also take this further, using virtual reality technology as an escape, accessing virtual performances or visiting famous locations. Smart speakers are becoming common in care homes also, used to play news, audio books and music, and for helpful reminders that make life easier in the later years.

Family at their fingertips

Managing all-important family time can be a challenging balancing act. It’s not always easy for resources to be available at a level that the families of residents are happy with.

For those who live in care homes or retirement villages, being able to meet and take visits from family members is often the highlight of the week. It can be disappointing and disorientating when lockdowns and health risks put a halt on these occasions,

Simple social communication resources available on phones and tablets allow for family to check in on an isolated person. Being able to see them makes a greater impact for the resident than a simple phone call would – and often helps cement the memory of that conversation.

Family can also be upset at not being able to see their loved ones, especially elderly folk for whom time together is preciously short. Meeting in the middle with technological assistance to ensure these virtual visits go smoothly can help to maintain a strong relationship with resident’s families.

Shared experiences

This has been the season of cancellations, postponements and rearrangements. For elderly folk especially, missing out on much anticipated events can be very upsetting. To help residents who were unable to attend family events such as weddings due to the need to isolate, some care homes have arranged for access to live video of the events.

This can be played on a large screen in a communal area to give the resident the ability to share in the viewing of this important occasion, albeit from afar. Other residents may also enjoy viewing the event and it can spark conversation about their own weddings or family members, furthering relationships within the home.

Whether they opt for a big screen viewing or prefer to watch from the privacy of their rooms, the resident’s perceived involvement in the event can be supplemented by providing appropriate treats or meals and even assisting the resident in dressing for the occasion.

A friendly voice

Many older people keep a television or radio always playing for company. These voices, while friendly, cannot help if they need a light switched on or can’t find their phone.

A trial of smart speakers in care homes in the United Kingdom found a wide range of benefits for residents, who used them for everyday assistance as well as entertainment. Managers in these homes reported seeing enhanced engagement for activities in the home. They also noted calming effects and increased self-confidence in residents, as they acquired new skills.

While there can be teething issues with the use of such technology ultimately they can hugely help care workers. The virtual assistant can often answer questions residents may have without them needing to call for help.

Conclusions for the trial recommended smart speakers be installed in all care homes: “Voice-activated technologies are easy to use and promote interaction. This study indicates that implementation in care homes was possible and that smart speakers had multifaceted benefits for residents and staff. Most care homes in this region now use smart speakers for their residents, thereby normalizing this practice.”

Future forward

A set of VR goggles can be all that stands between an isolated or incapacitated person and being front row at an incredible performance by their favourite musician or seeing a live theatre performance of their favourite play.

Aged care homes are increasingly using VR to help residents ‘go’ places, providing them with a sense of relaxation and escape. Some residents chose to experience a different country, while others journey into space – and carers are saying good things about the repercussions of this tech use.

One 2018 field study at an assisted living home, carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that almost 39% of the group reported “better perceived overall health” after watching VR images related to travel and relaxation. In a world where travel is difficult even for the able-bodied, this technology is breaking down barriers and providing routes for escape from the humdrum of the everyday.

Helping, not hindering

If there’s one thing that’s true about technology, it’s that nothing stays the same for long. The pressure to ‘stay up to date’ can seem overwhelming sometimes!

However, it always pays to look at any new gadget or app from a dispassionate viewpoint. Technology must be used to make life easier, not more complicated or confusing. It must bolster human contact rather than replace it.

For carers, it is important to be patient in teaching residents to use new technologies. It can be daunting, but within assistance, many will pick up on it quickly. Bringing in an expert to teach the use of these technologies to new users can be helpful, both for the residents and the carers, as these professionals will often know the best and easiest way to use the technology and will be able to quell any doubts with confident assurance.

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