Social Isolation and loneliness have profound impacts on health. Research has compared the health impacts of loneliness to smoking, concluding that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out earlier this year, many health and wellness programs and social activities were cancelled or suspended. Providers quickly stepped up to move programming online, to institute phone-based wellness checks, and to provide other creative means of maintaining social connectivity. Early on, Aging and Disability Services (ADS) planning staff reached out to partners to identify and promote new social connectivity strategies. In addition to ongoing support of senior centers and meal providers, ADS has implemented several projects this year in support of social connectivity.
The first and most obvious challenge involved physical distancing, which is one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of the virus; however, people needed to find new ways to connect, including through the use of technology. ADS partnered with six senior centers to distribute tablets to older adults who are using them to connect to their social networks and to access remote health and wellness programming. Some clients are also connecting to medical care, an approach called “tele-health” that has been used for many years but took on a new significance and more widespread adoption. For tips on tele-health, read “Getting Healthcare During COVID-19” in the August 2020 issue of AgeWise King County.
For this approach to work, clients must have an Internet connection. Fortunately, both the Seattle Public Library and King County Library System have programs in place for individuals who lack other ways of getting online—hotspot devices and free wi-fi locations. Hotspot devices provide a wireless connection to the Internet. King County Library system has distributed more than 50 hotspots to tent cities and day shelters and has obtained funding for a limited number to be distributed to low-income senior housing communities. Because demand for the hotspot devices is so high, ADS is partnering with other agencies to make them available for older adults.
In April, Age Friendly Seattle—a City of Seattle initiative staffed by Seattle Human Services—launched a series of live online events called Close to Home: Stories of Health, Tech & Resilience that features multiple presentations by local government and community representatives. Their popular Civic Coffee Hours also became monthly online events. A variety of special online events have also been presented.
To make online access easy, Age Friendly Seattle created a single link for their events—the blue button on bit.ly/AgeFriendlyLive, which becomes operational just prior to the start of each event. Technical support and a telephone option are also provided (via the green button on the same page).
Whether or not they are tech-savvy, many older people are more comfortable or just prefer connecting socially in other ways. For them, finding “lower-tech” ways to connect while maintaining physical distance was essential. Phone-based wellness checks became much more commonplace in the early days of the pandemic, but there was not a lot of guidance or information on the best approach—including what questions to ask, how often to check in with clients, or how to make good referrals if need be. Researchers at the University of Washington stepped into the gap to develop new programs and to enhance existing programs, in partnership with community agencies.
The Stay Connected program is one great example of a way to prevent loneliness and minor depression via the telephone. Read about this program in “Staying Connected During COVID-19,” an article by Dr. Patrick Raue in this issue of AgeWise King County.
Another lower-tech approach is AgeWise TV, a new series broadcast on the Seattle Channel (Channel 21 on most TVs) that provides programming and information tailored for an older adult audience. Programs are also available to view on demand by visiting the AgeWise TV link above. For more information about AgeWise TV, read “Seattle Channel Launches ‘AgeWise TV’ Programming” in the July 2020 issue of AgeWise King County.
One key to success is a willingness to be flexible and respond to needs and opportunities as they arise. The Intergenerational Tech Support Program was another innovative response that ADS staff helped plan and implement. When COVID hit, many youth programs had to suspend their operations. Students who were involved in tech-focused 4-H programs operating out of the Highline School District were looking for a way to use their skills to support the community during this time. In early April, ADS staff helped Washington State University King County Extension Office and 4-H volunteers set up a pilot program and connect student volunteers with clients at two senior centers to assist them with using their internet-connected devices to stay socially connected. Later, this support expanded to senior housing.
These and other innovative approaches have lessened the negative impacts of social isolation during COVID by empowering older adults in King County to stay connected and stay healthy. ADS and our partners will keep finding new ways to support social connectivity, which will continue to be vital even after the pandemic has run its course.
Contributor Jon Morrison Winters is a senior planner at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County.