KINGSTON – This past year has been challenging, frustrating and at times, depressing for many of us, but even more so for older adults. In addition to facing increased health risks and safety concerns, many older adults are also battling a technological divide. 

The University of Rhode Island College of Health Sciences welcomed alumni and professors to address these issues on Wednesday night as part of a panel discussion on how the pandemic has been affecting older adults. 

Although panelists came from a wide array of backgrounds and fields of expertise, everyone was in agreement that virtual social gathering just simply can’t compare to the real thing. 

“I think older people in the community, especially, never really had to look to technology because they were always doing stuff,” said College of Pharmacy Clinical Professor Erica Estus. “At one of the senior communities I go to, that was one of the comments — that they never had an iPad because they never had to use it.”

“They were always going out and doing their own thing,” she added.

Estus, who also leads the university’s cyber senior program alongside Associate Professor Skye Leedahl, said the pandemic has forced everyone to start thinking more creatively. It’s also taught many older adults some new skills they thought they’d never use. Things we’ve always been used to doing in-person, like going to a doctor’s appointment or playing board games with friends, have transitioned to online meetings. 

During this time, Estus has worked to bring creative and collaborative thinking into her classroom discussions, while also working to bridge some generational divides. Earlier this week, Estus brought a few older adults into “class” so that students could begin getting some experience in telehealth. 

While it’s not being utilized to the same degree as it was at the onset of the pandemic, according to Leedahl, about 32 percent of older adults have had one or more telehealth visits. Expanded use of technology isn’t just important for doctor visits, but for senior centers and adult day care centers to stay in contact, even if they can’t physically open their doors back up. 

Social distancing and compliance with all other health and safety guidelines is especially important for adults 65 year old and up. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention, despite the fact that adults 65-years-of-age or older only account for roughly 10.8 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the United States, this age bracket makes up about 56.8 percent of the nation’s deaths. 

In Rhode Island, which has now seen more than 25,000 cases of COVID-19, adults 60-years-of-age or older account for more than 25 percent of all cases, according to data from the Rhode Island Department of Health. This same age bracket also accounts for more than 90 percent of the deaths in the Ocean State, which overall, has lost more than 1,100 residents. 

Statistics that Leedahl enjoys sharing with her students is only a very small percentage of Americans were living in nursing homes before the pandemic – about 1 percent. In Rhode Island, that percentage was even smaller, hovering around the 0.72 percent ballpark. These surprising statistics, however, make the fatality data even more disturbing, in Leedahl’s opinion.

About 42 percent of all COVID-19-related deaths in the United States occurred in nursing facilities, according to Leedahl. In Rhode Island, which had an even fewer percentage of its elderly population in nursing homes, 78 percent of all COVID-19 related fatalities are occurring in nursing facilities.

“As you can imagine, these deaths and fears about loved ones being in nursing facilities has led to fewer beds being filled,” Leedahl said. 

Before the pandemic, nursing facilities were at roughly 87 percent capacity. Data from September shows an even lower capacity, according to Leedahl, of about 75 percent.

Although some organizations have been doing a fantastic job of expanding their services and Prior to pandemic: 43 percent of adults reported feeling lonely; 25 percent reported being socially isolated; 26 percent levied along 

“While I don’t have any current data using those specific measures, there is definitely evidence that this has only increased, due to the pandemic,” Leedahl said. 

Since the pandemic, there have been “surges in mental health concerns, substance abuse, [and] domestic violence,” and reason to believe people are having much more difficulty sleeping at night, issues with overeating

“Social isolation is about as bad as smoking lots of packs of cigarettes per day,” she said. “It’s the reality that social isolation and depression have been linked to premature death, dementia and heart disease.”

Peter Bristol, a member of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the university, said he’s really missed the social interactions and learning opportunities he frequently took part in with the group. As someone who was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment several years after retirement, he knows treatment comes with big lifestyle changes — encompassing everything from nutrition, exercise, brain stimulation and socialization. 

Rather than enjoying walks in nature with his fellow group members, the social aspect of his exercise has been lacking. 

“That’s gone,” Bristol said. “You can’t do that anymore.”

“I was walking down the street by myself,” he added, thinking back to his walk that morning.

And while some of the groups that Bristol takes part in have begun transitioning to online activities, Bristol said it just isn’t the same.

“The socialization is there, but it’s a virtual socialization,” he said. “It’s not the same, but at least it’s something.”

Director of Social Services at Woonsocket Health and Rehabilitation Center Pauline Mburu agrees that there’s absolutely no substitute for real human connection, but she has been impressed by what patients and staff have been able to accomplish. 

“Of course, as social workers, we’re used to being able to help people solve their problems,” Mburu said. “With the pandemic, truely, it was very, very difficult and frustrating.” 

Although the center had some difficulty explaining the issue to patients and residents, especially to those with memory problems, overally, Mburu said they did even better than expected. 

“I think we don’t give them as much credit as they destive,” she said. “They were very understanding.”

She credits this to the family-like atmosphere at Woonsocket Health and Rehabilitation Center that helped get them over many hurdles – like explaining Skype and Facetimes to older adults, and then walking them through how to download the software. Thankfully, there were also young, frontline staff members to help with this, too.

“Our team here really went out of their way,” Mburu said. “One morning I came in and found the director of physical therapy sweeping the floors. I had the director of nurses passing trays.”

“Everybody did what they could,” she said. “It didn’t matter what department you came from, it didn’t matter what you were used to doing.”

When much of the staff had to quarantine and departments were left shorthanded, Mburu said others were willing to step up to help keep things going. 

Recent graduate Victoria Parker,’16, said she’s also been encouraged by the teamwork and progress being made to deliver patients with the best possible care. 

As the education and research associate for PACE Rhode Island, a nonprofit organization that provides healthcare and insurance to older adults who want to remain home, her role often requires her to work closely with clinical and administrative teams. When COVID-19 drastically altered the number of adults received services each day, it forced a big shift in community-based healthcare. 

“I think what was so surprising about the entire transition was really how resilient the older adults and their families were in just sort of going with the flow,” she said. “Learning with us, welcoming us into their homes more than ever before, welcoming new technology into their home and just being open to learning it.” 

“For some, that was the only way we could connect with them,” she added. “This resilience was just really surprising and heartwarming.”

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