Outbreaks of the novel coronavirus have struck nursing homes and senior living communities across the nation. Facilities have been forced to highly limit visitation or, in some cases, ban it altogether. No doubt these measures are protective for older people who are particularly vulnerable to severe illness and death from COVID-19.
Unfortunately, it comes with a high cost. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to social isolation than younger individuals, and those already suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are even worse off. In fact, since March in the U.S., there have been 13,200 excess deaths caused by dementia, that is, deaths that are above what would be considered normal. In other words, in too many sad cases, we are protecting people from the virus only to have them die of the very social isolation that’s supposed to keep them safe. Thus, it’s important for memory care centers to find ways to mitigate the effects of social isolation.
What are the Consequences of Social Isolation?
Social isolation is associated with a number of health risks in adults aged 50 and older, including a 50% increase in the risk of dementia and a 32% increased risk of stroke. In memory care units, it causes significant distress for residents and can worsen symptoms of dementia, accelerate cognitive decline, and cause depression and anxiety. These residents don’t fully understand what is going on.
For memory care facilities that are afraid to allow residents to mingle as they normally would or who are finding it necessary to restrict visitation or outside activities, finding ways to preserve social interactions is key. With many residents not having left their buildings since March, problems are increasing.
Technology provides a solution, but requires help; many older adults, even those not suffering from cognitive decline, are simply not as savvy about technology as younger people who grew up with the internet. They often need a lot of assistance to use and understand the available tools.
What Solutions Should Memory Care Centers Use?
The best solution for these times is virtual socialization. This allows seniors to have interactions with their friends and families without the infection risk, or the issue of masks (which can be scary for older people with dementia.
Standard, consumer-grade video conferencing technology requires a lot of work on the part of caregivers when dealing with cognitively-impaired older adults. Fortunately, there are some solutions that are much better suited to the specific needs of memory care facilities.
Virtual visitation can take place both on-site, with the family remaining outside the building but within view of the resident, and remotely. A facility can offer either or both of these options, with both being ideal.
Centers should also take steps to continue with socialization amongst residents while taking precautions to slow spread of the virus. This might mean having residents socialize in smaller groups, moving activities outside where possible, and using virtual socialization to allow residents to socialize without leaving their rooms. However, they should be careful to try and find ways to get mobile residents out of their rooms as lack of stimulation can also worsen symptoms and cause mental health issues. So, how can memory care facilities adapt the programs designed to increase stimulation, improve socialization, and slow decline?
Social Distancing On Site Activities
For some facilities, it might be possible to continue on-site activities whilst applying social distancing. If the weather is pleasant, activities can be moved out into the garden or other outdoor area. If not, capacity can be reduced and residents seated further apart. Unfortunately, this can cause issues where residents are unable to hear each other or speakers.
Eversound offers one solution to this with a wireless listening system that has a 300ft range, and allows all of the residents to hear at a volume that’s appropriate and comfortable for them, neither so quiet that they cannot hear nor so loud as to cause sensory problems. This also means staff members and presenters don’t need to shout.
In some cases, it might not be advisable for higher risk residents to leave their rooms at all. If you have a resident or staff member test positive you might also need to temporarily confine residents to their rooms.
In-room socialization is also a good idea if you don’t have space for socially-distance on-site activities. Using iN2L or other tablets, residents can engage in activities or play games from their rooms, without any risk of infection. Even residents who have tested positive or are mildly sick can continue with their social lives.
Many activities can continue this way, such as movie nights and games. Anything that doesn’t involve people touching or moving objects. Residents can also use tablets or screens to virtually eat with their friends. iN2L also provides the ability for residents to sign up for activities or be scheduled without the need to interact with staff, further reducing unnecessary physical contact.
On-Site Socially Distanced Visitation
While it is generally unsafe to allow family and friends access to the building, socially distanced visitation is possible. Outdoor visits can be allowed if kept brief. Alternatively, family members can remain outside the building and talk to residents through windows or French doors. Eversound headphones or tablet-based systems (or both) can be used for conversation.
This allows for more of a sense of normalcy as family members can come to the facility. They can also use the system to talk to staff. The system could be used in the future to help ensure that family members who have a contagious respiratory virus don’t have to enter the facility, and won’t be disappointed if you have to ask them to stay outside.
Remote visitation allows family members or friends to engage with residents without coming to the facility. This also works well for family members who are unable to come to the facility because they are living a long distance away, on work travel, etc.
Using tablets, such as the iN2L system, which is specially designed for seniors, residents and family members can have private conversations, with or without staff present. The system can also be used by volunteers who would normally come to the facility.
Remote visitation can even be done via virtual reality systems such as Rendever. Although it can take some training and practice for residents and family members to use the system, virtual socialization allows seniors and family members to spend time together in favorite places, including ones which may be a long way away or have significantly changed.
If you normally have joint activities with another facility or allow residents interaction with other parts of your facility, such as letting assisted living residents visit friends in the memory care center, then remote group video conferencing can be an answer. Use large computer monitors, touch screens, or smart TVs that can let a group of people in one room talk to another (and which can double as televisions). This gives the feeling of being in a room, and is also great for virtual parties. For example, if you have a resident celebrating a birthday and they want both fellow residents and family present.
Virtual Tours and Activities
Virtual tours have become popular with people of all ages, but are a great way to safely allow your residents to experience things outside of the facility walls. For residents who might have been confined for months, these tours can give them a break. Using virtual reality tools such as Rendever, seniors can check things off their bucket list or walk in their favorite garden, all of which can help reduce depression.
These experiences can be shared with other residents, staff, or family members. In fact, some VR systems can allow seniors to take their grandparents to places they once knew. Visiting places from the past can help memory care patients hold on to their identity and cognitive skills. Visiting places they have always wanted to go can help them ground themselves in the present and be less depressed.
Virtual reality can also be used to allow seniors to experience family events, such as weddings, they might have missed. Even without virtual reality gea