Provisioning Older Adults to Get Connected During Covid

It is critical to get older adults reconnected with humanity as they sit alone in their apartments and houses. The solution seems to start at using tablets, smartphones, laptops, and computers. We need to assess whether the two basic ingredients are in place to allow these devices to even make sense for many whose expectations are to make video connections, access the internet, and communicate through the myriad of digital tools.

Companies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meets provide popular interactive webinar platforms. These platforms require the user to enter into a webinar using a hotlink, or they can be accessed using an application (App). The user starts by entering a meeting code and password. Entering a webinar is usually for most of us and has become our daily routine since COVID-19. However, using a webinar format can be a challenge for an older adult not comfortable with technology.

Start with a reality check:

  1. Is there connectivity? If not, what is the cost to get this and how is that sustained over time?
  2. Who will help with the set-up of devices including installing new programs and teaching navigational skills, and who will be providing ongoing or on-demand support for the older adult user?

If those bases aren’t covered, successful and widespread adoption of video conferencing for older adults may not be feasible.

The Tech Problem – Let’s Think Outside of the Box

At CircleTalk™, we have been grappling with these issues for nearly 6 months. Our mission is to create opportunities for social engagement for older adults to disrupt isolation and loneliness. This is especially problematic when face-to-face models for programming (in every setting that older adults live and engage) are cut-off from them.  Following are two solutions to this problem:

  • Bring the Mountain to Mohammed! In a few short weeks CircleTalk™ will install tablet computers in individual homes (with strict personal safety and social distancing protocols) to make it easy for older adults to participate in a CircleTalk™ webinar/video conference program. These tablet computers with cameras will be equipped with remote access software to access Zoom through TeamViewer. The technical facilitator will access participant devices and proactively launch a Zoom call for the older adult.

What is the participant experience? At 10am every Thursday the tablet “wakes up” and sounds a pleasant alarm, the participant sits at their screen as a Zoom room opens up to their group of 6-8 friends and a CircleTalk™ Program Leader. For the next 60 minutes they are reconnected to a small community as they participate in an interactive conversation. This provides a socially and emotionally gratifying experience for our participants with no technology barriers.

  • Let’s go Retro – Remember the Party Line? We are now entering our second round of beta testing to deliver an experience of group connection and belonging as CircleTalk™ dials up (either landline or cellphone) 6-8 older adults weekly on a phone conference platform. A leader guides the group conversations so that the 60 minute phone-in program is participatory, with interactive group activities that build community. This is done from the convenience and comfort of home. The phone is a perfect low tech solution  and a familiar communication instrument requiring no technical skill, and is all that is necessary to participate, engage, and belong.
  • Challenge the “New Normal” with New Ideas! We are in good company with our colleagues and other innovators in the aging space. There are many of us thinking in creative ways to customize virtual approaches (low and high tech) that fit the needs and capacities of residential communities and community based networks where older adults want to grow and thrive. What are the assets that a community or organization already possess in their staff and their infrastructure? Can they engage the resources and brain trust of their extended community to donate devices, services, and their technical skills to get people reconnected with community?

We are looking forward to the future!  We will continue to  demonstrate methods in every virtual format that is available to us to create a new set of “virtual best practices”. Whatever the method, it is imperative that any programming that is going to reach out to older adults must lower the barriers at every point to make virtual connections (audio or video) affordable, easy to use, and of high quality.

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