How Technology Is Impacting Senior Care During COVID-19: A Q&A with Fahad Aziz

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Fahad Aziz, co-founder of Caremerge (EHR and engagement technology for senior living communities) recently participated in a Q&A discussing the many ways technology is being used amid the coronavirus pandemic in senior living, and how it’s transforming senior care. 

  1. Senior living centers are among the most vulnerable communities grappling with how to quickly and effectively adapt to the pandemic. What are some of the challenges senior living communities are facing amid COVID-19?

Senior living centers are dealing with how to shift their priorities to mitigate the risk of infection and protect their communities. Experts have warned of the increased risk of infection for older Americans to COVID-19, and the health and safety of residents and staff has become an ongoing priority. 

Communication has become a key component of care for these communities. In order to keep elderly residents and staff healthy and safe, senior living management needs to get over the hurdle of building out ways to clearly communicate and manage the constantly changing public health and safety guidelines. 

Many senior living communities are excellent when it comes to delivering care, but struggle with managing that communication aspect. For caregivers, delivering person-to-person care is no longer the safe choice, and staff shortages caused by virus exposures, other illnesses or the need to care for family at home have put communities under immense pressure to adapt quickly. 

As communities scramble to put the right solutions in place, many have turned to technology to help solve some of these challenges. 

But this comes at a cost — the more they transform their operations, the more they’ll be spending. And with personal protective gear in short supply and high demand for caregivers on the frontlines, the task of reallocating budgets to provide supplies and technology to manage patient care becomes increasingly challenging.

  1. As a result of COVID-19, telehealth solutions and technology have become more widely used. What kind of technology-based care are senior living centers using?

Communities are facing very basic operational challenges, such as how to get food delivery to residents and how to keep every day processes running smoothly. At most places, food programming has been in place for a while, but now, communities are embracing technology to efficiently manage food orders and facilitate deliveries.

Most group activities, programs and visitation from loved ones has been cancelled, leaving staff members and caregivers to rethink strategies for keeping residents engaged without physically engaging. Some senior living communities, like John Knox Village, in Pompano Beach, Florida, are responding by moving all activities to centralized platforms online

Since families can’t visit residents, family members rely on staff to let them know what’s going on with their loved ones. Those trying to connect with residents under shelter-in-place orders have started using video platforms such as Zoom, Skype or FaceTime. But with all the rules and regulations around healthcare, the major concern for senior caregivers is making sure they are communicating through safe HIPAA compliant methods. 

Emerging technology has started to come into play. Telehealth has become more widely used in the absence of  physical appointments, and it’s become commonplace in senior living to have virtual doctor visits using large monitors, smart phones, and tablets to communicate directly with physicians. 

Amid mounting pressure for transparency, sensory and contact tracing technology has the potential to play a vital role for sharing data and accurately pinpointing where a person has been and who they have come in contact with. As senior communities around the country return to a semblance of ‘normal’ these trackers will become a critical and essential part of seniors’ lifestyles. 

  1. Senior living centers have restricted visitation and residents sheltering in place as part of the effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 leaving residents vulnerable to the effects of social isolation. How is technology being used in senior living to combat loneliness for seniors?

Prior to COVID-19, technology played a key role in keeping senior living residents engaged and active, and now it’s even more critical. Smart speakers are among some of the more user friendly and practical solutions, because residents can activate the technology through voice without the hassle of remembering passwords. Senior living communities are using this kind of voice-activated technology more and more to keep residents connected. 

We’re also seeing some communities deploying robots to interact with residents. In some cases, they’re like companions or even pets. Whatever form they take,these companions seem to make people feel less lonely. Studies show robots have had a positive effect in fighting off loneliness, or at least diminishing signs, but there’s still plenty of skepticism surrounding this. 

Consequently, with tight budgets, senior communities can choose more practical options. For example, a community is working with their residents to create their own TV channel. With many residents staying in their rooms for longer periods of time, in-room TVs are being used as a tool to create an interactive experience for residents through live streaming. Communities are setting up exercise classes, streaming religious ceremonies, and even hosting things like group bingo or trivia.

  1. In some states (Kansas, Florida, etc.), senior living communities are entering phased reopenings, raising concerns among industry leaders that reopenings are moving too fast and will put already vulnerable residents at risk. Are senior living communities putting residents at risk by reopening too soon?

As states start to re-open, senior living communities will face a difficult dilemma. The high risk of infection and low recovery rate in these communities raises many concerns, especially with no cure and limited protective supplies available. Reopening facilities too soon could put workers at an increased risk of developing or spreading the disease.

Infection control protocols will become harder to enforce as things start to restabilize, and people start physically interacting again. Safety will be in the hands of the facility and the staff will be responsible for employing a more cautious approach towards relaxing protocols for reopenings. 

This will be a slow, gradual process, and during this time, limited interactions with loved ones can be difficult. But communities are managing to keep families and loved ones connected. 

As an example, a community recently got creative and constructed a special family-visiting area that complied with social-distancing requirements. To accomplish this, they set up a seating area outside of the glass entrance, and another on the inside of the facility, with an Alexa device for each person to talk through. It’s not perfect, but it’s a relatively safe alternative that can help residents stay connected through the ongoing pandemic. 

  1. With occupancy and new tours significantly down across senior living, what can communities do to rebound when reopening begins?

Occupancy is becoming a huge challenge for senior living facilities due to the virus. Facilities are losing residents to COVID-19, families are moving residents out of communities out of fear for their safety, and there’s little interest from prospective residents. The pandemic makes it tougher than ever for senior living providers to strike the proper balance between residents’ safety and making communities appealing for future residents. 

Financial stress is another factor testing the viability of the senior living industry as a whole. In general, most senior living communities are not highly profitable. Even for-profit communities hardly meet their financial goals. As a result, these communities will need to get creative with how they will deal with low occupancy and open doors to prospects. 

This can include using the community TV channel and other interactive platforms to connect prospects with the community. They can attend virtual events and participate in games which gives them a chance to be a part of the community without living there. 

More importantly, talking to prospects earlier in the process of their decision and surveying outside of the community can also be great ways to gauge what prospects might be looking for and where their concerns lie.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the senior living industry, but if there’s a bright side to all the safety measures in place, it’s that senior care leaders are discovering new paths for resident care and utilizing new and existing technology platforms to help create a sense of community, remotely. 

Fahad Aziz is the co-founder and chief technology officer at Caremerge, a software platform that connects senior living residents with staff and family members. In 2012, he launched Caremerge and, since then, the company has served 400 communities with over 100,000 residents.

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