The challenges for aging services have become more apparent in the wake of COVID-19. Not only are older adults more at risk from coronavirus complications but they are also prone to compounding issues regarding food security, mental health, and isolation.
Getting older is not easy.
Aging in the middle of a global pandemic, particularly one that disproportionally affects seniors, does not make it easier.
As the coronavirus continues to surge, aging services are feeling the brunt of its impact. Almost half of all elder care organizations have had to cut staff during the pandemic (1). 46% anticipate needing to do so in the future.
With organizations forced to reduce services, the challenges of elder care are becoming more apparent.
While access to nutrition has always been an issue for older adults, the pandemic has made it even more difficult for seniors to grocery shop. Many elders are afraid to use public transport or enter stores due to the risk of coronavirus.
Food insecurity has recently doubled in older adults (2), and this disparity is significantly higher among those reliant on social programs. A 2020 NCOA survey found that assistance with buying groceries is the number one need among senior citizens right now (3). However, with assistance programs straining to make ends meet, some seniors are left with no viable options.
“We’re at the cusp of a new world,” says Harry Huston, 72, of Baltimore (4). Many share this same sentiment over concerns on the rising challenges for elder care.
While COVID-19 threatens the risk for older adults when going out, it is also causing problems inside. Patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s are now experiencing an acceleration of their symptoms (5). Many believe this is due to social isolation, as fewer visitors mean less mental stimulation. Other elders are reporting a decrease in mental wellness.
“I would like to get my wonderful, wonderful life back,” expresses Annis Pratt, 83, of Birmingham, Michigan (6).
Not all these challenges are caused solely by coronavirus, however. “Isolation of older people has long been a problem,” says physician Bill Thomas, “but COVID is focusing attention on the issue and adding urgency [to address it].” (7)
Notwithstanding, organizations are hard at work to restore as much of their senior patients’ wellness as possible.
Some programs are looking into utilizing technology to help ease the burden of isolation. FriendshipWorks is partnering with nursing homes across the country to match volunteers with older adults for virtual chats (8). These volunteers are often able to visit with twice as many seniors as an in-person calls. This suggests that technology may be key in improving both reach and effectiveness of some aspects of elder care.
Other organizations have begun recruiting “Technology Coaches” to help seniors use devices like Kindles and smartphones. These initiatives have proven critical in helping older adults contact health providers, manage errands, and stay in touch with their families.
While incorporating technology into elder care is a great start, it does not help everyone equally. Among the 31 million Americans without broadband internet (9), the majority live in small rural towns. Seniors in this demographic may not have the resources to participate in virtual programs. Without the ability to Skype with volunteers or FaceTime with their doctors, they need a more physical solution.
Such solutions may reside in incorporating community-care coordination.
Community-care coordination focuses on combining efforts of multiple organizations to meet the need of the individual. When programs work together, they can combine resources, share costs, and often double their impact. Case management programs are an effective tool to achieve community-care coordination and are becoming an increasingly important aspect of successful organizations.
“I would like to get my wonderful, wonderful life back”
-Annis Pratt, 83, Birmingham, Michigan
Although aging can be difficult, it does not have to be.
As we shed light on the challenges of elder care, we can innovate more effective solutions. Aging services is an essential part of a healthy community, and helping these organizations to succeed is crucial.