By Wayne Rash, Contributor, Consumer Tech, Forbes
As the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to alter society, companies and organizations are responding. Google, Facebook and other companies have told their employees to plan on working from home until 2021. Twitter has told employees that they can work at home forever, if that’s what they want.
On the opposite coast, the federal government has sent its employees in Washington, DC, to work from home as well, and the resulting drop in traffic, coupled with much needed work on transit systems has led the governments of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia to request that the federal government keep their employees at home for a while longer.
This, coupled with mandatory stay-home orders from a number of states means that large numbers of people are staying home whether they’re working or not. As they stay at home, social isolation sets in. People are no longer seeing their co-workers or their families.
“How do we use technology to overcome this?” asks Chris Michaud, head of EPAM Continuum’s innovation and design practice. Michaud’s group is studying ways people engage online, and the changes that have come about as a result of the social distancing requirements brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Michaud said that one approach is to use the technology that’s already in a home as a bridge.
In most cases that technology includes the internet, which is why you hear so much about people meeting on Zoom or connecting via Apple’s FaceTime. But for some parts of the population, especially seniors and people in under-served or unserved areas, that may not be possible.
“There’s a program we’ve put together to connect through people’s TVs,” Michaud said. “from something as simple as changing the channel to a favorite program, to a more emotional connection, like what Facebook is doing with Portal.”
However, Facebook’s Portal requires an internet connection, which is something that is far from ubiquitous in the homes of seniors as well as in rural areas and in some urban areas. In such locations social isolation is a significant problem. Online services including shopping and delivery are more difficult to accomplish, information is harder to find and comforting events such as family visits aren’t necessarily available, even remotely.
The 4G Solution
One such solution is a product called LifeStation, which is a wearable monitoring device that provides a variety of services. According to Laura Aiello, director of LifeStation, those services include fall detection and live agent monitoring in an easy to use format, in this case a pendant worn around the neck. The monitoring service is for much more than just emergencies, although it can handle those. It also allows caregivers to monitor a person’s location and well-being, it can provide a link to family and friends, and it can provide a contact service, giving seniors someone to talk to and provide help ranging from calling Uber to getting deliveries.
Because LifeStation uses the 4G LTE network, it doesn’t require an internet connection to work. Caregivers and family members can still monitor the wearer’s location and safety whether they’re at home or out and about.
Aiello said that with the advent of the coronavirus the company has instituted weekly wellness calls. The company provides a concierge service and can confirm a variety of actions including basics such as making sure medication is taken on schedule.
While social isolation among seniors was a problem long before the arrival of the COVID-19 coronavirus, social distancing requirements have exacerbated the problem. Where once family members and other caregivers could help out with activities such as errands and doctor’s visits, now that’s not even possible.
That in turn means that something as simple as carrying medical records to a new healthcare provider is problematic. But with that need comes a solution, in this case an app called DrOwl can provide access to medical records via the CMS Medicare/Medicaid site, which they can then share with their provider.
Fortunately for most seniors and others who are socially distant from their friends and family, the internet does provide a pathway to the personal contact they need. It will never substitute for physical contact, but at least it’s something, at least for a while.
Wayne Rash is a science and technology writer based in Washington, DC. He's a columnist for eWEEK and writes for PC Magazine. He's a former Executive Editor of eWEEK, a former Editor of InternetWeek and CommunicationsWeek. He's the author of five books on technology. He's a retired naval officer and the former Director of Network Integration for American Management Systems. Rash is an amateur radio operator and a licensed pilot.
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