by MAJD ALWAN, PH.D., SENIOR VP OF TECHNOLOGY AND BUSINESS STRATEGY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE LEADINGAGE CENTER FOR AGING SERVICES TECHNOLOGIES (CAST)
The recent COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacted the older, frailer, and other vulnerable populations that LeadingAge members in California and across the nation care for, has had a significant impact on provider members, caregivers, families, our strained healthcare systems, the economy, and even the environment across the globe.
While most of the impacts we’ve been seeing were negative, even catastrophic, we have witnessed some needed and long-awaited changes that have been accelerated as a byproduct of our response to this global pandemic; some of these changes, especially with respect to the use of technology, would most likely reshape our future. In what follows I will try to reflect on some of the longer-term changes that are likely to remain in place, and their implications on aging services and potentially other sectors.
In response to the shut-down of business offices, telework, social distancing, quarantine, no visitation, and limited socialization opportunities, Internet connectivity all of a sudden became the most efficient and safest way to have meetings, conduct business, and keep some parts of the economy running. Of course, that was not a stretch for most companies in the information and technology economy sectors, but even the most anti-telework/telecommuting corporations found themselves embracing this option. Many businesses have had to move software to the cloud and adopt video conferencing, virtualization, virtual private networks (VPNs), two-factor authentication and remote support capabilities for their staff and clients.
SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS AND ENGAGEMENT TECHNOLOGIES
Over the past couple of years, we have witnessed an explosion of intuitive, easy-to-use social connectedness technologies, including voice-controlled devices and interfaces. These technologies were already gaining popularity, and were adopted by nearly half of the larger providers, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the pandemic, we’ve noticed a significant increase in interest from aging services providers, caregivers, consumers, and others in these technologies to compensate for shelter in place, prohibition of visitations, and quarantine and to keep older adults who were cut off from their friends and families connected and engaged.
In response to the increased interest, LeadingAge CAST produced a QuickCast (https://learninghub.leadingage.org/learn/video/supporting-social-connectedness-through-technology) to complement our Social Connectedness and Engagement Portfolio of Tools (https://leadingage.org/social-connectedness-and-engagement-technology-tool).
IMPLICATIONS BEYOND THE CURRENT PANDEMIC
In a very short time span, the pandemic has shown us that telecommuting, telehealth and distance learning are all viable, efficient and cost-effective options. It has taught us that not all travel is as essential as we used to believe. It has taught us that we can adapt and that such adaptation can have some positive side effects — just look at how reducing travel has had a positive impact on the environment. We’ve also come to realize that the Internet is an essential utility, just like water, sewer, and electricity, and that connectivity should be a right for all citizens in this day and age, regardless of socio-economic status. Finally, we’ve come to realize that expensive commercial real estate in downtown major cities is over-rated, and we can reconsider our previous approaches to urban planning — including parking spaces.
Moving forward, I believe we will see business more broadly accept telework where possible in our society. Consequently, we will experience less travel, congestions, and pollution. We will likely see more and more online learning, training and virtual events. Now that the telehealth genie is out of the bottle, it won’t be returning to the previous constrictive position it was in before this pandemic. However, businesses, including aging service providers, need to invest in improving their remote work capabilities from the IT infrastructure from redundant connectivity, to back-up and recovery, security, and remote support. Moreover, as a country, we will need to invest in our telecommunications infrastructure to ensure that it is not only available ubiquitously, and capable of handling the demand, but also future-proofed and affordable to all citizens.
Learn more about LeadingAge CAST at www.leadingage.org/cast