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Amid efforts to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation and loneliness have emerged as a significant public health crisis, particularly for older adults. Isolation and loneliness affect those living in facilities as well as those living on their own in the community.

In addition to the mental health implications such as depression, studies gathered by the National Institute on Aging demonstrate that prolonged social isolation can lead to other health complications, including cognitive decline, high blood pressure, heart disease and a weakened immune system. These side effects are particularly concerning during COVID-19 when such comorbid conditions put individuals at higher risk for adverse reactions from the virus.

The University of Louisville Trager Institute is developing technologies and services to reduce social isolation while maintaining social distancing.

“Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation,” said Anna Faul, Ph.D., executive director of the UofL Trager Institute. “We are working with community partners to bring technology and social supports to older adults facing increased social isolation due to the current pandemic.”

In April, for example, the UofL Trager Institute and Brent Wright, M.D., of the UofL School of Medicine, introduced SmartGlasses technology to long-term facilities and primary care offices. This technology allows a health care professional who is with the patient to put on the web-connected glasses and dial in with an attending physician. A camera and microphone attached to the glasses allow the physician to see and interact directly with the patient in real time.

Recent awards of nearly $190,000 from multiple organizations will allow the Trager Institute to support the expansion of additional resources, including:

  • Telehealth and teletherapy for residents in long-term care facilities
  • Training of staff and students to offer virtual interdisciplinary care coordination and chronic disease management
  • Caregiver resources such as training, support groups and counseling services focused on Jefferson County and surrounding rural counties
  • Specialized mental health services for older adults to reduce social isolation and depression (PEARLS program)
  • A state-wide virtual-friendly visitor program that provides patients, families, caregivers and nursing home residents and staff with resources to reduce social isolation

The funding is provided by the Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program CARES Act, the National Family Caregiver Program Title IIIE (Administration on Aging) the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Title IIIE (Administration on Aging) as well as others throughout Kentucky. These grants have created statewide partnerships and expanded the footprint of the institute and of the university.

“Given the expansion of social isolation in our community, our team has prioritized the dissemination of technology to community-dwelling older adults,” Faul said. “In addition to the currently funded efforts, we are looking forward to the possibility of additional funds that will allow us to provide iPads and Bluetooth technology to vulnerable community-dwelling older adults in Jefferson County and several rural counties, to establish a mini-virtual health clinic network across multiple Appalachian counties and to disseminate innovative contact tracing efforts through app-based, wearable devices and AI-based services.”

The Trager Institute hosts weekly COVID-19 information sessions that focus on the experiences of older adults, caregivers and people with chronic conditions during the pandemic. The Aug.4 information session will explore the broader efforts of our community to address social isolation through technology innovation. This session will feature Wright, associate dean for rural health innovation in the UofL School of Medicine, and Rebecca Brown Rice, director of operations at the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council. This session will explore the innovative ways technology is used to reduce social isolation and loneliness both during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of this conversation, the speakers will explore the latest developments in technology, such as SmartGlasses, and creative ways to re-imagine existing technology.