Older adults are among those highest at risk for death and complications from COVID-19. They are also more likely to have problems using technology such as a smartphone or tablet, with 77 percent stating they’d need assistance to try to use one.
This means that social distancing becomes more isolating, with limited opportunities to connect to friends, family or even a doctor to keep tabs on chronic health conditions.
Founded by students at Yale University, TeleHealth Access for Seniors aims to close the technology gap among the elderly. By donating used phones and tablets and buying new ones, the nonprofit is offering technological devices to people who are most in need of digital health services and routine medical check-ins.
“We started it because we realized there were a lot of seniors who didn’t have access to technology,” co-founder Aakshi Agarwal told CT Insider. “This was a really growing problem across the nation … especially for low-income patients.”
Agarwal founded the organisation with classmate Hanna Verma and her younger brother Arjun Verma, who all wanted to help during the pandemic but were limited by social distancing. The siblings originally came up with the idea after talking to their physician parents about issues involved with telehealth.
“They’d been trying to switch to telehealth in their practices and they noticed that one of the biggest issues was that only their young patients could use it, but none of their older patients had the necessary devices,” Hanna told Yale Daily News. “I just thought it was ironic that doctors are switching to telehealth to preserve the health of the elderly, so they don’t have to come in and risk their own lives, but they are the group who can’t take advantage of it.”
According to the organisation, people are often happy to donate their old devices. Many old iPhones have been donated, whereas new devices tend to be Android tablets due to their lower cost.
“It’s not terribly taxing,” said Yale student and volunteer Alexandra McCraven. “I know that for people that I’ve collected from, they really want to get rid of the 4Ss and the older devices that don’t really upgrade anymore, so it’s a situation where they’re happy to help the cause but also we’re almost doing them a favor because they’re really not worth that much anymore.”
When TeleHealth Access for Seniors receives a device, it is sanitised, reset and given to a clinic that is in need of devices for telehealth appointments. The nonprofit also offers resource guides in English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Arabic, in addition to wellness guides and free tech support.
“Then they’re assisted all the way through to setting up their MyChart, their FaceTime, whatever telemedicine app that they use,” said Siddharth Jain, treasurer of the organisation.
“We have an entire digital calling guide that says how to use Zoom, how to use Skype, FaceTime, Facebook, all these different things that you can use to connect with your friends and family,” Agarwal explained. “The rate of social isolation among seniors is honestly really, really jarring for me to think about. I can’t imagine living entirely alone and not having a device to call my grandkids or my children.”
Over 1,500 devices have been donated throughout 26 states and 75 partner clinics. While doctors have lauded the organisation’s role in facilitating telehealth services, the founders also believe that the ability to connect to one’s loved ones is just as important.
“Part of our mission is that we believe that digital connectivity is really important just for general wellness, especially during a pandemic when you can’t go outside,” Agarwal said.