Learnings from Covid 19 and the future of elder care
The pandemic has increased social isolation, reduced health oversight, heightened underlying anxieties, and lessened the sense of independence among senior citizens.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for all of us, but it has been devastating for the elderly. Globally, senior citizens have been the most vulnerable demographic. Coping with the pandemic necessitated many large and small compromises in the way the elderly live today.
The pandemic has increased social isolation, reduced health oversight, heightened underlying anxieties, and lessened the sense of independence among senior citizens. Some, if not all, of these changes will affect the way our seniors age in the future too.
Going forward, we expect geriatric care to focus on both physical and mental aspects of health. Till now healthcare has primarily focused on physical health in hospitals – much to the detriment of holistic wellbeing at home. We expect technology will increasingly shape the way care is delivered at-home and outside a clinical environment.
The Mental Health Challenges
Even before this pandemic, mental health problems were common among the elderly - depression being the most common. Covid however heightened the impact of social isolation on mental health. Tech comfort has traditionally been low for this demographic – so while others took to zoom meetings and FB easily, especially in the early days of lockdown, many of the elderly fell off the social grid.
Social interaction is particularly important for the aged. Lack of conversation, engagement or fulfilment can hasten onset of dementia or psychological changes. Mental health issues, including depression, hopelessness, hostility, anger can also impact physical wellbeing. There could be increased risks of stroke or cardiovascular disease emanating from poor mental health.
The silver lining however is that there has been a marked improvement in tech comfort among the elderly as the pandemic dragged on. Many more of the 60+ population are today actively engaging with social media, mobile apps, google searches. This creates huge opportunities for innovation in integrating the elderly and supporting them remotely – from providing tele-health consultations to doing “antakshari” online.
Vaccination will of course, over time, allow for more social contacts. Yet, the ‘new normal’ for seniors will be vastly different from the pre-COVID era. We expect more mental health support to be available digitally and on mobile, including through text messaging. We hope the elderly will also access these services more as the “stigma” of mental health is somewhat reduced when help is sought online, sometimes even anonymously and not face to face.
The Senior Living Challenges
Physical Activities: During the pandemic, many senior citizens stopped walking or exercising. Decreased physical activity can cause hyperglycemia, worsen cognitive abilities, increase susceptibility to infections, cardiovascular diseases, bone & joint pain.
We now need a more evolved healthcare delivery system for the elderly. A healthcare system that promotes tele-consultation, group exercise therapy sessions, nutrition guidance, medication advice – many of these services available on mobile. These innovative strategies can complement traditional healthcare at a hospital or clinic.
In-Home Care: Most families with elderly relatives have had to also deal with in-home care challenges. Most caregivers’ (nurses, attendants, physiotherapists) access to family homes have been restricted, compromising the quality of care provided. Lack of care quality has also increased stress at home while worsening health outcomes for many.
Senior in-home care requires a high number of touchpoints, including close contact between patient & caregiver. Whether providing physical assistance or helping with daily activities like feeding, bathing, shaving, most caregivers can easily pass infection to the vulnerable elderly. Therefore, families have been loath to provide unfettered access to external help.
Going forward, we expect the elderly to remain cautious while hiring help for in-home care. They will expect caregivers to be vaccinated, follow hygiene protocols, be regularly tested for Covid-19, undergo more training, wear PPE kits, prefer 24/7 home help to those who need to travel into work every day, thereby reducing the risk of infection.
These changes will however increase in-home care expenses in the future.
The rise of professional care companies
Traditionally the elderly have been served by a local and often fragmented network of family, friends, and neighbours. This network was truly stretched and stressed through the pandemic when the informal caretakers themselves were worried about their own health.
Professional companies will start filling that gap. These companies provide tech-enabled, socially distanced solutions including PPE wearing care workers who follow hygiene protocols while interacting with the elderly. These providers are recognised as essential service providers by the government, thereby ensuring uninterrupted access to vulnerable patients, especially at the peak of the lockdown.
The emergence of age-tech
Senior friendly phones, health apps, telehealth platforms, IoT devices, smart sensors – all these are no longer marginal solutions but central to the care of an elderly at home. IoT systems create “intelligent” homes that monitor senior safety, remind them about their medications and trigger emergency response based on patient vitals. In case of emergencies or abnormal behaviour, home care companies can activate ambulances or even send critical care nurses quickly to reduce patient distress.
We believe that technology will revolutionise home care delivery, reduce healthcare costs and optimise remote monitoring of the elderly in the post-pandemic world.
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