Focus, Health Care, and Technology

Enriching older adult lives through technology

Programs aim to help seniors interact, communicate and learn.

June 26, 2015
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Technology is enhancing the way seniors communicate with family, medical professionals and each other. ©Thinkstock.com

Organizations serving older adults are leveraging technology and innovative programs to change how people age and provide life-enriching experiences to seniors.

Clark Retirement Community, a Grand Rapids-based continuing care retirement community, not only provides services such as independent and assisted living, skilled nursing, rehabilitation, respite and dementia care, but also offers technology forums for residents and other seniors in the community.

Brian Morrill, director of information technology at Clark, said the organization looks at technology holistically, from infrastructure and electronic medical records to enhancing communication and life enrichment for seniors.

“It is really fluid, and I think, continually, we process and consider the resident experience or the resident enrichment,” said Morrill.

“We communicate with families and the caregivers, we direct care and staff in areas such as how technology enhances the communication, the quality, the effectiveness and efficiencies, and we also look at fostering the right culture so technology is accessible,” he said.

On the second Wednesday of each month, Morrill said Clark Retirement Community offers a technology forum, inviting both residents and people from the surrounding community to learn how to use smart devices, such as an iPad.

Last fall, the organization partnered with Aquinas College as part of the college’s Project Unite community service initiative to teach residents at Clark on Franklin how to use social media and technology.

“There is a lot of cross-generational learning that we do and we are trying to tap into. We bring Aquinas College students here to Clark to teach our residents,” said Morrill.

“They want to move beyond FaceTime with their grandchildren. We may get into having a resident order their meals online, Skype with physicians, or, frankly, start an online business. These are all areas that, when you find a resident with an expressed interest toward it, you run with it.”

Morrill said one of the problems technology can address by using group-oriented applications such as online games is the loneliness older adults often experience.

“From a life-enrichment standpoint and from their perspective, they are learning, and at the same time the loneliness factor comes into play and it gives them a purpose to learn something new and have fun doing it,” said Morrill.

“I think one of the biggest shifts in how technology will continue to redefine the experience of a retirement community is really exciting.”

Despite being relatively new to the retirement community industry, Morrill has more than 20 years of experience in health care and technology, and upon joining Clark Retirement Community’s team approximately five years ago, he realized technology services are woefully underfunded in the retirement space.

“Retirement communities work in three industries that I see: One is the real estate industry, we are also in the hospitality industry, and then we are in the health care industry,” said Morrill.

“Within all of those three areas, somehow technology got left out, and I don’t think there were people explaining what the technology can do for (seniors) by enriching their lives — not only the residents, but also the caregivers.”

During the national summit Rethinking Dementia, Accelerating Change held in Grand Rapids June 10, New York-based social impact organization Older Adults Technology Services was invited to speak on the subject of innovation in the aging space.

The collaborative event invited thought leaders from across the country in a variety of service areas to share their insight, expertise and best practices.

Morrill said OATS has had success with explaining technology to the older community in New York and offering classes to seniors.

“It is one of those areas where I think piloting and learning from OATS, or Aging 2.0 and some of those organizations, you learn about what their experience has been and then you duplicate it because you see value, and being woefully underfunded in technology, you want to make investments that are smart and meaningful as a life enrichment to those residents that are living here,” said Morrill.

Headquartered in Brooklyn, OATS has been harnessing the power of technology to change the way adults age, live and learn since 2004. It has partnered with more than 30 sites in New York City to provide computer courses to older adults, and over the years it has built a municipal technology program for seniors serving more than 20,000 each year in 24 technology labs.

Tom Kamber, executive director and founder of OATS, launched the organization after recognizing the impact of technology on a woman he began tutoring after working on a website project to foster community involvement in lower Manhattan after 9/11.

“I realized when people get online, it can really unleash a lot of their potential that might be kind of held back, and I looked at what kind of nonprofits I could connect her to, and there were none that were really working on that issue,” said Kamber.

“I began OATS, really, on this notion of teaching classes — getting seniors together in rooms and teaching them how to use the Internet.”

In April 2010, the New York Academy of Medicine released a social impact analysis of older adults and OATS computer-training programs, indicating roughly 94 percent of study participants reported an increase in their confidence using computers, and nearly 44 percent felt their awareness of social activities had increased. In terms of effectiveness, 94 percent of OATS students rated its program as either excellent or very good, and six months after training, 63 of the 66 study participants were still using their computers.

“We spent a lot of time with our participants teasing out questions and seeing what people wanted, where they were going. And what we learned is seniors wanted technology because technology can help them really unleash themselves; it can help them thrive and envision their own futures,” said Kamber.

The report also indicated community partners hosting OATS training classes benefitted from the potential to positively shift people’s attitudes and beliefs about older adults.

Although funding is a challenge in terms of technology and innovative programming for OATS, Kamber said it wasn’t any more difficult than for any nonprofit startup.

Barriers to getting funding include overcoming a legacy of ageism and outdated institutional structures.

“It took us a really long time to get through some of the structures to get funded. We are raising a couple of million dollars a year in local and state money from government, and another million in corporate philanthropy, foundation and individual donor money,” said Kamber.

“For quite a while, we had to make the case we were something different, and indeed the resources that we get coming from outside the aging space usually come from technology.”

While challenging the traditional expectations of aging, Kamber said OATS’ technology programming provides older adults with a sense of relevance and is a bit of a countercultural statement.

“Systems that we have created to serve older people haven’t adapted yet,” Kamber said.

“We live in a society where we are very uncomfortable with aging. Americans have wrapped up aging in a lot of fear of death, fear of sickness, fear of frailty and loss of control.

“The reality for most older people: It is not the defining set of characteristics of their later years.”

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