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Covid-19 and Mid-Year Look at 2020 Tech Trends for Older Adults

That was then… In early 2020, focus sharpened on market categories of aging and caregiving. AARP published a new report that showed growing interest in technology among those aged 70+. The 127,000 CES 2020 attendees in January saw exhibit areas and innovations focused on older adults and what they need. Cambia Health released a survey of caregivers, 64% of surveyed caregivers use at least one digital tool to help them with caregiving. The National Alliance for Caregiving surveyed caregivers about their use of technology (surprisingly low), and Samsung, Best Buy and Amazon now group offerings that could be helpful for older adults and those who care for them. 

And then came disaster...  In March, everything changed with the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic that shut down non-essential businesses, shuttered most restaurants and retail, eliminated all visits into senior living and nursing homes and halted family travel to visit elderly relatives, putting the virus front and center in the media, with daily counts of cases and deaths, further terrifying older adults and their families. Some estimates indicate that 42% of all deaths from the virus could be traced to nursing homes.   Among the biggest scandals were the deaths in New York City nursing homes from bringing Covid-19 patients into the buildings, quickly infecting the other residents, killing as many as 10,000 or more.

…And ageism and the digital divide got worse.  The epidemic of nationwide worry at home that horrified families has been particularly damaging for older adults, especially the oldest, peering out of windows of nursing homes and senior living apartments at family members clustered outside. A growing ageist media wave emerged -- perhaps well-meaning -- intent on isolating older adults, no matter their health status, at home and away from others. The resulting loneliness and depression revealed a glaring digital divide between the technology haves and have-nots among older adults.

And the technology lens zeroed in on the need for telehealth now. The slow crawl of telehealth uptake has turned into a gallop. Telehealth technology vendors have struggled for a decade to gain attention, but with CMS reimbursement for (any) telehealth visit a market crawl became a race. Senior living firms that had (optimistically) deployed Wi-Fi in 50% of their buildings AND at the same time, saw their businesses stall when prospects could not sell their homes and did not move in. Telehealth tech during Covid-19 ranged from the telephone call, FaceTime visit, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and helped promote the boom in Zoom.

Engagement matters more than ever. As families were cut off from each other and their aging family member,  suddenly tech to mitigate isolation was useful – and even for a time – free.  See the lengthy list of free or low-pricing tech offerings for seniors that emerged in April, vendors aiming at both marketing their offerings and tackling loneliness and isolation.

The smarter home of older adults must help fill care gaps.  The shortage of caregivers is getting worse, whether at home, in senior living communities or nursing homes.   Technology cannot replace hands-on work, but it could help make that work more effective and efficient. This includes machine learning/AI and smart home tech that may provide some assistance with managing the community, offering information to management and caregivers about care worker and recipient status and even making the home a healthier and more amenable place, even with use of AI for Covid-19 safeguards.  

Senior living communities, nursing homes, and home care firms must act. The clients, families and prospects are rightfully anxious – and may be talking about how their relatives should leave or will never move in, remain at home permanently and other emotion-laden statements that are signs of the times.  But as people age, circumstances like dementia, injuries, falls, and progressive diseases can intervene.  Now is the time for organizations that serve older adults to ramp up technology investments to serve their constituents with the technology that they already – or will soon -- expect.