Isolated seniors find real comfort in virtual connection
(ABOVE) Social isolation is a debilitating and dangerous illness, and when people with dementia are not in contact with the people closest to them, they lose their cognition and orientation to time, place and person. It’s absolutely critical that they stay in touch, say medical experts.
It was a simple gesture, but for a Manitoba grandmother cut off from her family by the threat of coronavirus, it meant the world.
“I’m not quite sure if I like this or not,” chided the woman as she brushed her fingertips across the screen of a tablet to virtually caress her grandson’s newly grown beard. The feelings of love and connection evoked in this instant were as life-like as if the family was together, face-to-face.
“It was such a touching moment because her whole family had gathered for that first video call,” said Jan Legeros, executive director, Long Term and Continuing Care Association of Manitoba, where the woman resides. “She hadn’t seen her family for quite a long time. It was just lovely to see that comfort and level of intimacy retained in the same way on-screen as they must have had in person.”
Lockdown at the Manitoba care home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 began mid-March, as emergency public health measures swept across the country. Almost immediately, Legeros began working to secure connected devices – tablets and smartphones – in a bid to support the 12,000 seniors in the care of the association’s facilities.
Ensuring residents, many of whom have dementia, stayed connected during the crisis was a top priority.
“Social isolation is a debilitating and dangerous illness,” said Legeros. “When people with dementia are not in contact with the people closest to them, they lose their cognition and orientation to time, place and person. It’s absolutely critical that they stay in touch.”
TELUS was a natural partner. From the onset of the pandemic-induced lockdown in Canada, the technology company moved quickly to expand its national TELUS Mobility for Good initiative to keep even more vulnerable Canadians connected to their loved ones.
The TELUS Mobility for Good COVID-19 Emergency Response program has delivered more than 10,000 smartphones and tablets – paired with zero-dollar data plans – to hundreds of non-profit organizations across the country. Its donation of 100 devices and data plans to the Long Term and Continuing Care Association of Manitoba has helped to reassure families, many of whom live out-of-province, that their elderly loved ones are safe and secure, even though emergency isolation measures may keep them apart.
It’s a partnership that ensures the devices end up in the hands of those who need them most.
“It was such a relief for families to be given this ability to connect,” said Legeros of the screens that are in constant use across the more than 150 long term and continuing care residences in the province. “To be able to see their loved one and see them being well cared for is really, really important."
According to Dr. Nicola Wright, a psychologist at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, the virus has also affected hospitalized patients deeply.
Prior to COVID-19, visitors could see their hospitalized loved ones in person, but the arrival of coronavirus changed that in an instant. With lockdowns in place across the Royal’s inpatient units – and with only a single landline per unit to share between as many as 30 patients – the opportunity to connect with the outside world became limited.
“Imagine being hospitalized without any ability to speak to friends or family,” said Dr. Wright, whose elderly patients are often challenged by schizophrenia spectrum disorder and psychosis. “At a time when patients were feeling most distressed due to COVID-19, they were also cut off from their closest, most precious contacts. It was heartbreaking.”
"The therapeutic experience of community, of connection, of feeling heard, of not being alone, and our common humnaity...well, that's what the phone brought to her."
- Dr. Nicola Wright
For outpatients, connection to others not only lessens isolation, but also serves to quell the voices and visions common to the illness.
“These can actually increase with alone time,” she said. “And the voices especially can become more denigrating and abusive in isolation -- so to have a phone to connect to treatment is transformative.”
Of the 125 phones and 135 data plans received by the Royal Ottawa through TELUS, half were given to the hospital’s in-patient units. The remainder were allocated for use by outpatients who had no access to a phone or data, making connection to their psychiatrists, mental health team members, and cognitive behavioural therapy group sessions all but impossible.
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For one of Dr. Wright’s patients who lives alone and accesses care as an outpatient, the declaration of the pandemic left her entirely cut-off from group-based care because she didn’t have access to a phone with data. Through the Mobility for Good program, she is now able to attend three virtual group sessions per week, and is maintaining her mental wellness.
“The therapeutic experience of community, of connection, of feeling known, of feeling heard, of not being alone, and our common humanity…well, that’s what the phone brought to her,” said Dr. Wright.
Back in Manitoba, the tender moment between the grandmother and her grandson serves to magnify the power of a virtual connection.
Indeed, going forward, Legeros sees a whole new level of connectivity made possible for seniors in care through digital devices. After months of enforced isolation, it’s a much-needed ray of light for care home clients and caregivers alike.
“After their conversation, the family was a little bit speechless and tearful. They were so pleased that their grandmother could understand that they were there with her, and she was able to connect with them in a way that was meaningful for her,” Legeros said. “These devices will be in use forever.”
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