Connect to Older Adults: Technology to Improve Wellbeing
Technology can play multiple roles in older adult quality of life and wellbeing.
Posted May 24, 2019
When I first connected with Linda (name has been changed), she was in her early 70’s, retired, and serving as the primary caregiver for her mother with dementia. Linda had joined a clinical trial I worked on as a clinician, and we were testing the effect of an app-based program aimed at improving symptoms of depression and anxiety. These are symptoms Linda struggled with for most of her life.
A bit older than our average research participant, and with countless barriers to receiving traditional mental health services, Linda was exactly the type of person I hoped technology-enabled mental health programs could benefit. Still, I had some concerns about her ability to engage with the program.
Although research shows older adults (age 65+) have lower levels of technology adoption compared to younger generations, this age group is embracing technology at a rapid pace and they are more connected than ever before.
I quickly learned that I was foolish to be concerned about Linda’s ability to participate. She took full advantage of everything our app-based program had to offer by learning and practicing multiple evidence-based mood management strategies, and consistently provided feedback on how she was now able to engage in brief practices to improve her well-being in a manner that fit into her unpredictable and often busy days.
At the end of the eight-week trial, her symptoms of depression and anxiety had remitted, and she noted that she had learned more strategies for managing her mood than she had over her several bouts of psychotherapy over the last several decades.
As the U.S. population ages, and the Silver Tsunami pours in with more than 15 percent of our population currently over the age of 65, it is urgent to capitalize on accessible means for support and improving quality of life and well-being for older adults.
While older adults tend to be more satisfied with their lives compared to younger adults, one in four older adults experience a mental health problem such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or dementia. This subpopulation has a substantial need for mental health care, yet many older adults struggle to get appropriate support.
In the general population, healthcare experts recognize that technology-enabled programs support mental health and well-being. One example of this is the recent surge in the popularity of mental health apps, which are diverse in nature and can provide mood and mental health screening questionnaires, skill-building exercises (based in techniques such as mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral therapy), and connection to licensed mental health professionals. Popular examples of these types of programs include What’s My M3, Headspace, Pacifica, and Talkspace.
Much of the attention on technology-enabled programs for mental health and well-being has been focused on adolescents and younger adults. Certainly, young people may be digital natives and may feel more comfortable than older adults in navigating new technologies.
However, older adults can be prime consumers for technologies to support and improve quality of life and well-being. As observed with the tremendous growth in older adults using Facebook, older adults are increasingly seeing benefits to connecting with others online.
Many barriers to traditional mental health services, including stigma and difficulties with transportation, are both amplified in older adult populations and can be circumvented with technology-enabled programs.
As loneliness becomes increasingly common in society, connecting with others face-to-face offers undeniable value. Use of videochat programs, such as Skype and Facetime, has been associated with a more positive mental health status and the use of videochat services for mental health support is growing.
Online psychotherapy, primarily delivered via videoconference, may be the golden ticket for some older adults as it balances providing a connection with a mental health clinician without the need for travel to a clinic or office.
However, psychotherapy isn’t the only type of mental health support that can benefit older adults. It isn’t the only way that technology can be used to support the mental health, quality of life and well-being of older adults.
Across the age span, it is helpful to think of mental health as a spectrum that offers room for growth and improvement. Rather than thinking about mental health issues as binary (that is, mental illness compared to mental health) and classifying individuals as “in need of treatment” or “healthy,’ perhaps it is optimal to think about how to best support individuals in striving towards purpose, wellbeing, and joy.
While using assistive technology-enabled services, such as rideshare and food delivery services, can undoubtedly improve accessibility and quality of life, there are a myriad of other ways technology can support mental health and wellbeing.
App-based programs designed to support well-being can be key for some people. Strategically using existing home technologies, such as behavioral activation style reminders on smartphones and on voice-activated personal assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home, or scheduling time to videochat with loved ones, can also nudge people towards healthy practices and set them on a path to wellness.
To be sure, not all older adults have access to these types of personal technologies. Efforts can be directed at both connecting older adults with the types of technologies that can serve them well, and training on how to use these types of technologies to maximize well-being.
The older adult population is rapidly blooming. It’s best to consider how to develop plans and programs that don’t leave them behind, and the role that technology can play in connecting them with ways to improve quality of life and well-being.