Angels (with great connections) in our midst

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James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

The ability to make a senior feel a part of the outside world can mean the difference between having a catatonic lump or a bon vivant on your hands. Luckily, there's never been a better time to overcome mobility issues.

I'm talking about mobilizing the mind and imagination more than walking fluidly or driving ability.

There is no reason many seniors can't learn to read email, Skype, send texts, create a Facebook presence, shop online or use search engines. They just need to have the means, the motivation and … the instruction.

The last one might be the biggest key. Yes, hardware can be expensive but learning how to use it typically is the biggest hurdle. That's where this spins around to focus on management, staff and volunteers.

They can work wonders toward helping bring the outside world to your long-term care residents, and vice versa. 

One recent Phoenix Center study found that seniors who surf the Internet can reduce depression incidence by 20%. Depression strikes about 25% of all seniors over age 65.

A different, University of Arizona study also revealed that seniors who used Facebook showed a 25% improvement in mental “updating” skills and other working-memory functions.

With millions of baby boomers poised to become senior living and nursing residents in the years ahead, the overall tech-savvy quotient is going to rise dramatically. Operators should want an in-house springboard toward getting these people connected with the far, far outside world. 

One company, Visiting Angels, seems to have it figured out. Although it's a home-care specialist, the firm's strategies can and should be adopted by long-term care and seniors housing operators without exception.

“Senior Surfing 101” is the name of one program administered by Visiting Angels. For starters, an Angel teaches a senior how to use a cell phone, text and send email. If they also teach the concept that you should leave a cell phone powered on even when not talking on it, that would be a bonus. (Please don't ask me why I emphasize this point.)

Visiting Angels also teaches how to use Skype and Face Time, which, of course, enables seniors to see and talk to relatives and friends in 3-D. More than mere words on a screen, this puts faces and voices to expressions and sentiments. It works wonders whether it's for cross-country grandchildren or cross-town friends who are also immobile.

But why stop there? Visiting Angels also shows how to create a Facebook account and page. Seniors can maintain running commentary and communication with family and friends at their own pace, regardless of whether someone's at home on the other end. Online shopping and researching are also specialties for seniors who don't get around much any more.

To repeat: This is the type of programming that every senior care provider should offer. A staff member dedicated to overseeing these efforts would be ideal. 

Even though older staffers might express their own frustration with some of the media modes mentioned above, an ever-greater number of employees has all but mastered at least one of them. Younger workers, most likely all of them.

You could also look to high school students — many need volunteer hours — or benevolent organizations such as the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Rotarians or any number of other civic engagement groups, could also be of help here.

Invite them in and witness a delighted transfer of one generation's strong suit to another's.

Even if the connectivity occurs only when volunteers are there in person, this becomes an attractive feature — for residents and families alike. it would be a marketing bonus for prospective residents and families.

Maybe it's because I've finally seen all of the outstanding 1990 Robert De Niro/Robin Williams movie “Awakenings.” But I firmly believe empowering otherwise low-tech seniors with modern means of communication would awaken a new spirit among them, and their families and staff members.

What might seem exotic today is going to become "every-day" in your senior community sooner than you think. Do you want to be at the front of that wave, or behind it?

James M. Berklan is McKnight's Editor. Follow him @JimBerklan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.