A recent online survey of senior living residents from Altarum asked key questions about their lives before and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings indicate that our seniors are lonelier than ever. More than half are not participating in any organized activities.
Other interesting data points include:
— Only 5% of respondents reported having visitors three or more times per week, compared to 56% before the outbreak.
— During a given week, 93% of respondents did not leave their nursing home for routine activities such as shopping and visiting family, compared to 42% pre-pandemic.
— Social interactions and activities within the nursing home have also dropped sharply, with 54% of respondents noting that they’re not participating in any in-home organized activities (such as exercise classes, art classes, resident meetings and religious services). That’s compared to 14% before the pandemic. The situation is perhaps worse for those living alone with little or no support.
Activities at Risk
I’ve long felt that we should rename activity directors in care homes to chief experience officers. After all, life enrichment and quality of life as you age are paramount. Yet during the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve seen activity budgets shrink, activity personnel let go and activity roles shifted.
Who suffers? The residents.
Some senior care providers have started to embrace technology and are bringing live-stream programming to residents. Others aren’t equipped, don’t have the bandwidth (literally) or simply don’t have the will or manpower to address activities in the midst of a pandemic.
That is why a systemic solution is needed.
Passion to Purpose
I have been a health professional forever, it seems. Few know that parallel to this and before I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’ve been a professional musician, songwriter and vocalist. I’ve performed around the country, recorded in Nashville and been through the ups and downs of that profession. When I left the clubs and casinos, I started singing in care homes, to the point that I was doing 100 shows a year part-time.
This changed my life, as I realized the fulfillment I was getting and giving. I received my dementia street training through performing. That’s when I drew a line in the sand with my career and shifted exclusively into health, aging and caregiving.
About five years ago, with fiber optics in the house, I was able to stream concerts live. It was a novel idea back then. The VHS-bound care homes didn’t have the interest, bandwidth or technology.
Fast-forward, and now things are different. Providers are evolving their programming, and experts predict that virtual streaming programs put in place for the pandemic are likely to outlast the pandemic.
Students to the Rescue
I recently received an email from Northeastern University looking for innovative projects that connected students with entrepreneurs. I approached them about solving a real societal issue — isolation — using a unique solution: creating a virtual entertainment and education network that provided livestream and pre-recorded programming for senior communities and home-bound adults.
“We couldn’t think of a more timely topic,” says Jane Braley, associate director of employer engagement and career design at The Experiential Network at Northeastern University.
I thought it would be a purely academic exercise; maybe I would acquire a handful of homes who I could perform for regularly. But our initial outreach proved we had hit on an idea that resonated.
To make this network happen, we have to address systemic issues. The pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of our health systems: Loneliness and mental health issues loom large. We believe a community of like-minded organizations and individuals can fill the void.
We need internet companies who can help overcome bandwidth issues; tablet providers who can help us put them in the hands of older adults; sponsors who can fund infrastructure as well as supplement the income of artists whose careers have suffered. The most important participants will be students who can foster intergenerational relationships, visiting older adults and assisting them with technology. Groups like Seniors with Skills and Brighten a Day.
This project is in its infancy, and we’re eager to hear from activity directors and others who can help us realize our full potential.
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