The last months have driven home the reality of COVID-19. Those of us who work with older adults have seen the virus impact virtually every aspect of life—for ourselves, for our colleagues and for our customers. We have realized how much our world thrives on social connection and the human touch; their absence has left us wanting.
Many of us now work, live and socialize from home (in our household that means with others in our safe family “bubble” or via video or audio calls). It seems that increasingly we recognize the challenges that isolation can pose to mental health. As we sit most of the day, we feel impacts to our physical health, too, in our strength, power, balance, cardiovascular capacity, muscle mass and energy levels. And whose cognitive abilities have not been tested by staring at a screen all day, whether television, computer or smartphone?
While some of us work from home, others among us provide essential services in senior living, long-term care, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, home health care and more. In these and other settings across the active-aging industry, the coronavirus crisis has led to shifting or added responsibilities, changes in practices and procedures, and isolated residents and clients. A new International Council on Active Aging® survey reveals industry responses to the pandemic and efforts to support overall health and wellness for older adults are as diverse as the population itself.
So, where are we now? The reality of COVID-19 has changed our world for the foreseeable future. The “next normal” is already here. The question is: Are we embracing or fighting it?
Surprisingly, we have arrived with little warning at a crossroads that society has moved towards for years. Today, and in the future, we need to live in two worlds—the real world and the digital one. By living in a digital world, I mean the ability to access, participate in and experience the world virtually through technologies, systems, applications, devices and networks such as the Internet. We need to be able to connect with people, places, services and content safely and fully from a distance. Every individual and organization should have a strategy to support this duality, a fact that COVID-19 has rapidly brought home.
Where technology or infrastructure fails to support living in a digital world, organizations are being challenged to connect and support the needs and aspirations of their residents or members. Older individuals need access to computers, smartphones, online services and technology-mediated human interaction; they also need support to use these things. For some, a telephone is their only lifeline. Otherwise, they are living on isolated islands detrimental to their health and wellness.
As I write this blog, Dr. Louise Aronson, geriatrician and University of California–San Francisco professor of medicine, writes in the New York Times about the depths of despair among older adults facing an indeterminable period of isolation at home due to COVID-19. She also mentions the “startling numbers of suicide attempts by older adults” that a local hospital has seen.
Beyond providing stopgap solutions to connect people and ease suffering, what can we each do to create “shared spaces” in our digital lives as individuals, organizations and industries? More tech suppliers might offer products that function on an open platform, allowing everyone to use them. Organizations might seek to better understand what individuals need to truly engage older adults in all areas of health and wellness. And, individuals might embrace, instead of resist, technology as if their health and well-being relies upon it. Unfortunately, they do.
We can’t predict what the future holds. We would be wise to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best, which today requires us to embrace living in both the real and digital worlds.
Colin Milner, CEO, International Council on Active Aging®