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Seniors in Clark County struggle to stay connected

Ted Page tried to enlarge the photos displayed on the tablet he held but couldn’t quite figure out how. Tap on it? Rotate the tablet?

His brother and sister-in-law, Steve and Shirley Page, use a GrandPad to videochat with people and look through old family photos. It’s designed specifically for seniors but can still be tricky to use.

“Telephone is easier,” said Steve Page, 81. He acknowledged that he should use the GrandPad more often. It’s a free resource provided by Home Instead Senior Care, the company that employs the caregivers who visit the Pages’ central Vancouver home each day.

Like many seniors, the Pages are homebound due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Washington’s phased reopening approach, anyone 65 and older is considered “high risk” and should avoid public interactions until Phase 4. Clark County is currently in a Phase 2 holding pattern. People 60 and older represent 21 percent of confirmed cases but 89 percent of deaths from the virus, according to the Department of Health.

That means the Pages should not go out to dinner or attend a relative’s birthday party.

“I used to be fun,” quipped Shirley Page, 84. Back in the day, she bowled and had her paintings judged at the Clark County Fair, which is canceled this year.

To stay connected during the pandemic, seniors and their families are wading into the world of tech and tools such as tablets and video calls. Despite their mixed success, they may be critical to the health of socially isolated seniors.

“It doesn’t work for everybody,” said Julie Williams, owner of the local Home Instead Senior Care franchise.

Caregivers are mostly facilitating phone calls, but seniors who are interested can use the GrandPad free of charge. Besides video calls, there are games and daily activities. Staff may video call clients to check in on them or sing “Happy Birthday.”

Steve and Shirley Page — married 49 years — are fortunate to have a support system of caregivers and family members who still see them regularly. Their daughter goes shopping for them and Meals on Wheels People brings frozen dinners. Ted Page is the “maintenance man,” fixing things around the house. The neighbors sometimes deliver flowers.

Not everyone has people nearby or is comfortable with in-person interactions.

“Families all over are struggling,” said Benjamin Surmi, social gerontologist with Koelsch Communities. “There’s so much disconnection.”

Surmi is interested in technologies that connect seniors to the outside world, helping prevent social isolation and loneliness.

Besides the big players — Facebook’s Portal TV, Amazon Echo Show and Google Nest Hub Max — there are lesser-known technologies designed specifically for seniors. As people wade through the options, Surmi said families have to be realistic about what they will actually use and whether it fits the lifestyle and ability of the elder. Unfamiliarity with technology can be a major barrier, he said.

Surmi recently held a webinar outlining options to suit every skill level, including technologies developed during the pandemic. FamilyJam, for instance, coordinates people’s schedules to figure out when they’re most available to call Grandma or Grandpa. Another tool, called Famileo, turns uploaded photos into a monthly printed newsletter. Konnekt and ViewClix tout themselves as safe and easy-to-use video calling options for seniors. For those who can’t navigate smartphones and tablets, Soundmind offers a voice-activated care assistant.

Using technology

Esther Schrader is more tech savvy than some seniors. She video chats with her son and daughter on Messenger and has used Skype before. She said her children are the ones to initiate any video calls.

“And we text. Oh lord, we text all day long,” Schrader said.

The 85-year-old described herself as more of an email person, but her kids don’t check their email often.

During her 2 1/2 years at The Quarry Senior Living in east Vancouver, Schrader started a drama group with another resident and put on four plays.

“Now we can’t even meet, much less put on a play,” she said. “I’ve been bored out of my skull.”

To pass the time, she reads and writes, does jigsaw puzzles and visits with neighbors when possible. Residents can now go to the dining room but must sit apart from each other. She occasionally drives to Fred Meyer to shop or the Olive Garden to visit with her favorite bartender, and she spent a long weekend with family in Seaside, Ore. The price of that beach trip was quarantining inside her apartment for two weeks upon her return.

“You make allowances is what you do,” she said.

Wearing a mask, social distancing and limiting interactions with others is “a pain in the butt,” but Schrader knows it’s what people have to do.

It’s hard, she said. As the pandemic drags on, life goes on without her. She hasn’t gotten to meet her great-grandson, born in early May, and another great-grandchild is due in January.

“Hopefully by that time I’ll be out and about and able to see family,” Schrader said.

The Quarry allows window visits with family, but it’s not really worth it for Schrader’s out-of-town family.

The community is one of several that’s received an iPad from A Caring Closet. The Vancouver-based nonprofit used grant money to purchase hundreds of iPads and distribute them to local senior living facilities so residents can keep in touch with people through virtual visits.

Groups disrupted

Through the Clark County Men’s Shed, men do activities and projects together to build friendships and stay engaged in the community. It held just three meetings before the virus hit and has since been treading water, said Arnie Dyer, who heads the group.

“Just as we really started to feel some momentum, we can’t meet together face-to-face. One of the basic premises of the shed is just that: sharing time together and getting out of the house,” said Dyer, 73.

A few men in the group were helping CDM Caregiving Services clients with small home repair projects.

Nowadays, the group gets together via Zoom video conference, but “it’s been a real challenge,” Dyer said. The online meetings attract far fewer people compared with the in-person meetings before the pandemic.

“One reason is we’re so new. We were just beginning to make strong connections,” Dyer said. People can have Zoom fatigue and facial expression is often hard to capture in lagging online videos.

“You make a joke and people’s faces don’t react for a second or two,” he said.

Conversations during the Zoom meetings are free ranging, roaming to whatever topic the guys want to discuss. It’s a substitute, albeit an imperfect one, for in-person interactions.

Besides learning Zoom during the pandemic, member Dick Halvorson began using WhatsApp to share pictures.

“If this virus has done anything it’s hopefully taught families how to talk where they weren’t before,” he said.

Member Bob Weinkauf, 84, misses working out at the Firstenburg Community Center, where he headed a Tuesday morning bridge group.

“I couldn’t even tell you what year it’s going to go back,” he said. The virus “shuts off a lot of activities for a lot of people.”

The Men’s Shed will reconvene whenever possible. CDM Caregiving Services sponsors the group and offered its central Vancouver facility as a meeting place. The adult day center closed in March and has not reopened.

“It’s kind of jarring,” said Eric Erickson, CDM’s executive director. “The day center is really a little family.”

Day center clients went from seeing each other multiple days each week to not at all.

Most are low-income and use Medicaid. They can’t afford a tablet or may not have internet access — both necessary to use some of the emerging technologies. CDM primarily goes low tech: calling clients on the phone to check in, especially with those who express anxiety or depression. Social isolation is a risk factor for depression and can lead to dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness is said to be as damaging to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Clinical study

Dr. Hiroko Dodge, professor of neurology at Oregon Health & Science University, is leading a full clinical trial looking at how video chatting impacts cognition among older adults. The project, called I-CONECT (Internet-based Conversational Engagement Clinical Trial), started in 2018 but has grown in relevance due to the pandemic.

“For most people our intervention is their only connection to the outside world,” Dodge said.

Researchers have 30-minute video calls with participants either two or four times weekly, depending on the “dosage.” They don’t just shoot the breeze. Participants are given a specific prompt, such as the topic of transportation and a photo of an old car. Then, the researcher guides the conversation to simulate memory and the brain’s executive function. In contrast, the control group has 10-minute weekly phone conversations with researchers.

There are 320 people aged 75 and older involved in the study. Results won’t be available until late 2023. Dodge expects to show video calls impact both emotional well-being along with brain connectivity and blood flow. I-CONECT participants had an MRI brain scan before the project began and will have another MRI after it ends.

The idea is that a similar intervention may someday become a prescription. In other words, a Zoom video call to test memory and boost social interaction could be exactly what the doctor ordered — not just a tool to stay connected during lockdown.

One positive that’s come from the pandemic, said Surmi, the social gerontologist, is an openness to technology that wasn’t there before. Families and care providers are being more proactive about embedding technology into older adults’ lives.

“That hasn’t really happened in the senior living industry,” he said. “That’s going to shape things for the better even when the pandemic goes away.”


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