Quality-of-Life Improvements for Seniors

Small, low tech

By Laurie Orlov

After reading this week about the Senate Aging in Place testimony and recommendations (see in-depth description from Intel's Eric Dishman), it's discouraging to read about the major barriers to adoption of "e-Care." So it's a pleasure to talk about a few cheap, low-tech, big-benefit ways to improve seniors' quality of life as we come into those two Hallmark seasonal events—Mother's Day and Father's Day. The seniors you help, of course, don't have to be relatives. They could be neighbors, members of a community, or visitors to a local senior center.

Start a Senior Center Without Walls. An ASA webinar yesterday offered the lowest-tech community program I've heard about yet. Presented by Director Terry Englehart, it was all about Senior Center Without Walls, a "Telephone Community for Homebound Elders" in California sponsored by Episcopal Senior Communities. Seniors (some may be in Meals on Wheels or other senior programs) dial a toll-free number, punch in a code, and participate in a conversation, a class, a health discussion, brain "aerobics," or a telephone travelogue. They even form friendships, all from their own home and phone. The courses and sessions are facilitated by volunteers, and material is mailed to seniors in advance. Participants can receive birthday cards, supportive calls, and participate in celebrations of each other's accomplishments (reminders are offered on the morning of the call). Costs to get started offering the program are $600 for 12 weeks of twice-weekly half-hour groups of eight people each. For those who want to give this a try, send an email to info@asaging.org and ask for the slide deck.

Create a life story video of an older person. Last week's New York Times New Old Age blog, "Remembering the Last Act," by Paula Span, is worth a look. It's about a family that created a video (embedded in the blog post) of a 75-year-old's birthday party, on what was clearly the cusp of worsening dementia. It's a charming short film of a charming woman, but what struck me was Paula Span's observation that anyone could put together a video of an older person for very little money. It's a great project for a teenager. Post it on YouTube, and then show the "star" what it looks like on a computer or even from a smart phone. Videos seem as easy to do for volunteers (as they are for vendors) at a local senior center, assisted living, or nursing home, and they are easy to show on the organization's own computer and to email to far-flung family. If you know of such a place, ask them if they do this.

Help a senior with a cell phone. Yesterday I chatted with a volunteer at a Florida senior center who told me how seniors who come in for the meals, bingo, and the movie are struggling with many aspects of their lives, with no nearby family members—only social service case workers who are assigned to a backlog of needs assessments that include finding programs to help seniors pay electric bills. One baffling problem she noted related to the cell phone purchased by a long-distance adult son. How could it be programmed to call 9-1-1 as the son wants? The volunteer offered to program the phone but wondered how many others are burdened by cell phones they don't understand but that could help in an emergency. Again, do most organizations have volunteers who offer this help?

And here's a final note. In the Q&A portion of the "Senior Centers Without Walls" session, Terry Englehart was asked about the percentage of program participants who have a computer—which she agreed could enhance the experience, for example, of travel-related discussions. Her reply: Surveys they have done indicate 20% (of these homebound seniors) have a computer in their home, which is higher than one might expect for homebound seniors. It makes you wonder about a multimedia "Senior Center Without Walls" that combines Web conferencing with telephone dial-in. And what about offering online courses in activity programs in senior centers—or senior housing?

By Laurie Orlov
Aging in Place Technology Watch Blog

[First posted April 30, 2010, at Laurie's Aging in Place Technology Watch Web site.]

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