Tech Becomes a Lonely Hunter: New devices help seniors feel less isolated, connected to friends and family

Neither of us is a technological whiz. What an understatement!

We know what we have to know to do our writing, Zoom, use our Smartphones to email and text with friends and family. In Margaret’s case, she can operate certain tools to tutor virtually. Barbara can use a tablet to enlarge and see photographs well for her watercolor paintings. Before the pandemic, we both would say frequently, “We hate technology” or “It’s definitely not our friend,” as one person we knew urged us to do, as we fumbled to learn a new technique or download an app. 

However, during the height of the pandemic, we reconciled that technology might become a new friend. And it did. In fact, we learned how it can be a lifeline, and the safest means to stay connected. We have finally reached détente with our devices. 

Lori Yount, VP of Operations, CareBuilders at Home

But we also know that some seniors struggle with smartphones, tablets and computers. “When they become frustrated with these, it can add to their overall mental struggle,” says Lori Yount, vice president of Operations, CareBuilders at Home, a national network of private duty home care agencies providing non-medical care to the elderly who require assistance with their daily living needs. The company, headquartered in Long Island NY, is now using simple video chat technology called, CareBuilders Virtual Care Platform. By connecting a small box onto the client's television, similar to a direct TV box, it turns a client’s television into an on-demand video chat center. 

“The device comes with a voice-activated remote which allows the senior to simply say, ‘Call my caregiver’, or ‘Call my daughter.’ In addition, the senior’s family can access a loved one through their TV instantly by using a cellphone app,” says Yount. She adds that none of the other video chat options offers virtual home care services, medication reminders, or gives families the ability to visually check on their loved ones everyday with ease on a large TV screen.

Does seeing our loved ones on a screen replace in person hugging, holding, kissing and more? Not at all, but it offers a virtual connection when human contact is not possible if the family lives far away or when getting together in person might spread an illness or infect the senior. This device also makes it easy for our clients to be included in those special moments, such as graduations, soccer games, or birthday parties, allowing family members to share easily these moment through the app on their phone and showing up, right on their loved ones’ TV screen!     

As we say in our recently released book, Not Dead Yet: Rebooting Your Life after 50, staying connected is vital to healthy aging. Social isolation is linked to a range of health issues, according to the National Institute on Aging. We read in a recent Cigna study that some three in five Americans are lonely, and the pandemic heightened this condition terribly. 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020, “Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System," Washington, D.C, the National Academies Press, ticks off some of the consequences of social isolation:

  • A 50 percent increased risk of dementia;
  • A 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke;
  • Higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide;
  • Nearly four times increased risk of death, 68 percent increased risk of hospitalization and a 57 percent increased risk of emergency room visits

Technology is a fact of life and is fast becoming the most important tool to enable many of us to age in place independently, the preference of most seniors. Some of the technology aids available today are mentioned in our book in Chapter 12, “Reaching the Finish Line.” There are tools for ordering food, listening to music, having a consultation with a doctor, keeping the senior company such as robotic pets and other artificial intelligence gadgets that with a push of a button, the senior can talk into a device to turn off the stove, lower the temperature, unlock a door once you see the person with a smart security camera and know it’s safe and much more.

To find out more about the CareBuilders Virtual Care Platform, such as the cost and how to set it up, we had questions for Yount.

Barbara and Margaret: What if a person has poor eyesight, maybe macular degeneration, or is very hard of hearing and doesn’t use an aid? 

Lori Yount: Those are the very reasons this technology is used on a TV versus a computer, tablet, or phone. This is a piece of technology that seniors are typically already familiar with making it easy to use. The screen size also adds a tremendous benefit. One of our best beta tests was with a client with macular degeneration who, through the utilization of our Virtual Care Platform, was able to see their family for the first time in years. It was a very emotional moment. 

B&M: Please describe your gadget and why it’s so user friendly? How to set it up and use? Please be specific. Is it difficult to assemble? Does the senior have to be part of CareBuilders to access this technology or will it be available to the public? 

LY: The device is the size of a direct tv box. It plugs directly into the TV. All other devices, for example a direct tv device or cable box, would then plug into the unit, instead of the TV allowing the voice activated remote to control their TV. This way, the user can tell the TV what channel or show they want to watch by simple telling the remote to “Put on the weather channel” or “Call my daughter”. CareBuilders installs these units to ensure it is set up properly and ready to use. We will also do some test calls with the user to ensure they are able to use the device properly. Will this be available to the public? Yes, this device is available to anyone who might benefit from this technology. 

With an app, family members can call the senior’s TV. At the time of the call, the device will put up a notification on the screen for the senior client to accept. This way, even if the client is hard of hearing, they can read the notification on their screen enabling them to accept the call.   

In the event the client does not answer, and the family member is concerned, they can “barge” into the screen and view the area the device is hooked up to. (Advanced permission is given to enable this feature at set up to ensure security.) This extra feature provides family members peace of mind knowing they can have immediate access to their loved ones no matter how far apart they live or are traveling. 

B&M: What is the cost of your device? Why not just use Zoom that is free if used for only 40 minutes or Facetime?    

LY: Prices vary based on location and services provided. It’s $399. This is a monthly cost of a comprehensive wellness program. the base price for most, and this includes a daily 15 minute “check in and chat” call, and medication reminder,  from a member of the CareBuilders at Home care team. We are not simply selling a technology, we are providing a service that offers a more proactive approach to client care and provides a cost-effective alternative to traditional hourly home care for those who may not be ready, or willing, to accept that level of service just yet. 

In addition, there are service enhancements available if the client needs hands on assistance for things like laundry, light housekeeping, and bathing. These task-oriented visits provide our clients independence at home with a little, or as much, assistance as they might need or want. 

B&M: What are sales like? Dollars? Number of units sold? How to get the word out?  

LY: This program is new and is just coming out of the beta stage. I do not have data for this currently. 

B&M: How is it different from using voice activated AI or other forms of tech available?   

LY: It offers an additional level of service that is provided by a human being who can gather data during each call and identify any changes in condition, patterns or behavior that may require further intervention from medical professionals or family. This allows us to communicate these changes to the family and coordinate additional services with the client's physician, skilled home health company, durable medical equipment provider, or community resources that may be beneficial. 

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