Amid efforts to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation and loneliness have emerged as a significant public health crisis, particularly for older adults. Isolation and loneliness affect those living in facilities, as well as those living on their own in the community.
In addition to the mental health implications such as depression, studies gathered by the National Institute on Aging demonstrate that prolonged social isolation can lead to other health complications, including cognitive decline, high blood pressure, heart disease and a weakened immune system. These side effects are particularly concerning during COVID-19 when such comorbid conditions put individuals at higher risk for adverse reactions from the virus.
The University of Louisville Trager Institute is developing technologies and services to reduce social isolation while maintaining social distancing.
“Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation,” said Anna Faul, executive director of the UofL Trager Institute. “We are working with community partners to bring technology and social supports to older adults facing increased social isolation due to the current pandemic.”
In April, for example, the UofL Trager Institute and Dr. Brent Wright, of the UofL School of Medicine, introduced SmartGlasses technology to long-term facilities and primary care offices. This technology allows a health care professional who is with the patient to put on the web-connected glasses and dial in with an attending physician. A camera and microphone attached to the glasses allow the physician to see and interact directly with the patient in real time.
Recent awards of nearly $190,000 from multiple organizations will allow the Trager Institute to support the expansion of additional resources, including:
- Telehealth and teletherapy for residents in long-term care facilities
- Training of staff and students to offer virtual interdisciplinary care coordination and chronic disease management
- Caregiver resources such as training, support groups and counseling services focused on Jefferson County and surrounding rural counties
- Specialized mental health services for older adults to reduce social isolation and depression (PEARLS program)
- A state-wide, virtual-friendly visitor program that provides patients, families, caregivers and nursing home residents and staff with resources to reduce social isolation
The funding is provided by the Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program CARES Act, the National Family Caregiver Program Title IIIE (Administration on Aging) the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Title IIIE (Administration on Aging) as well as others throughout Kentucky. These grants have created statewide partnerships and expanded the footprint of the institute and of the university.
“Given the expansion of social isolation in our community, our team has prioritized the dissemination of technology to community-dwelling older adults,” Faul said. “In addition to the currently funded efforts, we are looking forward to the possibility of additional funds that will allow us to provide iPads and Bluetooth technology to vulnerable community-dwelling older adults in Jefferson County and several rural counties, to establish a mini-virtual health clinic network across multiple Appalachian counties and to disseminate innovative contact tracing efforts through app-based, wearable devices and AI-based services.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing social isolation or loneliness, contact the care team at the Republic Bank Foundation Optimal Aging Clinic at the UofL Trager Institute for assistance. The care team can be reached at 502-588-4340, Option 1, Option 1, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional resources are available at Community Action Kentucky Partnership and Area Agencies on Aging and Independent Living, which provide social interaction programs as well as other essential services such as in-home care and food delivery programs.