Telehealth appointments with doctors, family meetings on Zoom, and online orders from pharmacies and stores have been lifesavers for many senior people during the coronavirus pandemic. But this immediate need to shift to virtual interactions has its downsides as the majority of seniors struggle with technology.
Doctors are relying more and more on using telehealth during this pandemic as the most effective and safest means of caregiving. But it’s a luxury that most middle-class seniors, who don’t have a computer, the internet or skills required to make use of the technology, can’t afford. Doctors report that most of these seniors struggle with technology as they have trouble installing apps or may have never used a smart device before.
Among them are seniors with hearing loss (which includes nearly 67% of those aged 70 or older), impaired vision (which includes 13.5% of those aged 65 or older) and `dementia (which includes 14% of those aged 71 and older) and those who struggle in using smart devices and programs that are designed without keeping their needs in mind.
Chief Medical officer of the American Association of retired persons (AARP) Services Dr. Charlotte Yeh observed the difficulties related to technology this year when she tried to teach her father who is 92-year-old how to use an iPhone. Yeh’s mother always handled the communication but she got hospitalized due to pneumonia, now Yeh’s father had to resort to technology to talk to his wife and other close relatives. But various complications got in his way as he is blind in one eye and has a cochlear implant for hearing.
Dr. Yeh’s father used a computer when family members tried to arrange zoom meetings but still faced problems as he could not read small captions on zoom. When Yeh’s mother who was 90 came home, physicians treating her wanted to arrange telehealth visits but an iPhone cannot be used as the screen was too small and computers also could not be used as they are too hard to move. Physicians needed a closer look at her mouth which was only possible with a tablet held at the right angle and with the flashlight on.
Dr. Yeh added that her family had the resources needed to solve those problems which many do not have and described the experience as a three-ring circus. Her mother passed away in July and now her father is dependent on technology more than ever as he is living alone.
SCAN health plan which is a Medicare Advantage plan with around 215,000 members discovered that nearly 33% of its members didn’t have access to the technology required for telehealth appointments when it surveyed the most vulnerable of its members after the start of the pandemic. Other problems in the way of serving members remotely included the need for translation services which is difficult to arrange for telehealth appointments. Almost 40% of SCAN’s members have vision issues and 28% have a hearing impairment which interferes with their ability to use digital services.
California has around 6 million seniors and 33% percent of them are of low income according to the Department of Aging. With an increasing number of coronavirus cases many senior people who are already at risk of getting ill are not able to leave homes and also struggle with technology. A senior person added that it’s a crisis on top of a crisis as older people, even before the pandemic, are often isolated from communities.
As seniors struggle with technology it leaves them feeling lonely and disconnected especially in the pandemic when they cannot go out of their homes. A majority of senior people are missing out on communication opportunities due to health conditions as most of the technology designed for communication relies heavily on the ability to read, hear, and see.