Above: The COVID-19 pandemic is causing changes in how seniors live and connect with others.

Every week — sometimes each new day — brings a new wrinkle in the ongoing coronavirus crisis. While the daily scramble shows no signs of abating, some people already are taking a longer view of how we will live with the disease in the future.

grandparentsProfessional futurists, government planners and senior service specialists are thinking about what life may look like for seniors, who have proved to be more susceptible to the disease, once effective treatments and/or a vaccine are developed for COVID-19.

The consensus is that connectivity, engagement and inclusiveness will all be crucial, and that, because of the pandemic, big changes are coming in where and how older adults live, ways in which they engage with technology, ways services are delivered to them, and how they will fit into the overall mosaics of their communities.

They predict seniors will be able to access more services from their homes and that both government agencies and private businesses will alter how they deliver them. They’ll be more tech-savvy and more inclined to get involved multi-generationally on ways to help the community. And another prime factor — where they’ll hang their hats — will look significantly different.

Not everyone is on board with the idea of a dramatically altered landscape, though.

headshot Leigh Cook
Leigh Cook SPECIAL

“One of the first things out of my mom’s mouth was, ‘Once they have a vaccine, it will go back to normal.’ I don’t necessarily agree with that,” said Leigh Cook, Associated Vice President of Strategy at The Highland Group, a transformation and consulting firm in Atlanta.

Cook compares 2020 and the pandemic with 2001 and 9-11, the terrorist attacks that produced permanent changes in security, accessibility and other areas.

“I think there will be a spectrum of how people will react, regardless of generation. And even with my parents, their personalities are very different. I think the big issue will be connectivity.”

Trend watchers think it’s likely that more families will take their elderly members into their homes in a return to the multi-generational approach that faded as the U.S. population became more mobile. Others think that seniors might gravitate more toward co-housing or shared living arrangements outside of nursing homes and assisted living centers, some of which have become hotbeds of COVID-19.

And for families and seniors still opting for institutional care?

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Kerstin Gerst Emerson

“People might well be more demanding in terms of long-term care options than before,” said Kerstin Gerst Emerson, clinical associate professor in the Institute of Gerontology at UGA.

“How do you watch for infections?” and “How do you handle a lockdown situation?” could be among the standard questions that mature adults and their families will ask in the future, she predicted. Forecasters say that increased care and concern could lead to more rigorous government standards for assisted living, memory care and nursing homes.

She added, “I think we’ll be more demanding not only on how to protect older adults [from disease outbreaks] but how to make sure that seniors can communicate within those settings.”

That’s where online communication tools like Zoom and Skype come in. Some people predict that when coronavirus restrictions finally are gone, families will rush to visit their older relatives in person in previously locked-down institutions. But once the excitement settles down, anything from tele-health visits to real-time interactive exercise classes could become the norm for many people.

State health officials are addressing that projected need by promulgating programs to put tablets and other devices in the hands of older adults, even as they worry about seniors who may have traditionally used online services at libraries and senior centers and might be disenfranchised going forward.

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Becky Kurtz

It goes back to back to the traditional balancing act: on one hand, said the AARP, polls show 90% of seniors want to stay in their homes as long as possible. Conversely, that creates a danger of isolation, a situation with “consequences as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” said Becky Kurtz, Managing Director of Aging and Health Resources at the Atlanta Regional Commission.

She and others say today’s health concerns will dictate changes in how seniors connect to have various needs met, from doctor’s office visits to housekeeping to purely social gatherings.

Kurtz thinks one possibility already being discussed in Congress will be investing more Medicaid money in at-home services, as opposed to the traditional emphasis on institutional care. She said whether the service is provided by a family member or a worker, many more people would get care at home if Congress provides more money for home and community-based care.

“If you’re in a nursing home [now] and you are eligible, you automatically get Medicaid to pay for your care, but not if you’re at home,” Kurtz said. “We are definitely seeing people reluctantly go into nursing homes. Family members can be paid by Medicaid to provide that care, lessening older persons’ new-found reluctance to have healthcare aides inside their home due to the pandemic.”

So-called assistive technology also will help seniors become more independent within their homes, said forecasters. One example is a more nimble bath chair that would eliminate the need for an aide to help with bathing chores.

Another concept that may snowball is the “senior center without walls,” said Renae Brown, the chief dietician at the Division of Aging Services at the Georgia Department of Human Services.  She said that among the approaches being utilized are handing seniors restaurant meal vouchers and shying away from traditional congregate meals.

At the same time, the agency is putting more programs online. “People who have an impairment or who just had trouble coming in are now discovering that ‘I can take this Yoga class from my home,’” Kurtz said.

State officials said another concept poised to take off is to allow more consumer-directed services rather than one-size-fits-all service mandates coming from government officials.

grandmother birthday cake“They’d be given a budget and could contract for services within the framework of what’s allowable,” said Karen Nelson of the state’s Aging and Disability Resource Connection. For example, seniors could arrange for home care outside of traditional service hours and parameters.

Changes in services to seniors are spilling over to private businesses as well.

“We worked with a large entertainment company,” said Cook, “helping them figure out connectivity. …they started out with a focus on designing specific products, but it evolved into a focus of more inclusivity being built into the company culture.”

Still other crystal ball gazers think older adults will become more community-focused and join with younger people, such as millennials, to work for the betterment of their home turf.

Jean Accius, AARP’s vice president of global thought leadership, predicts seniors increasingly may volunteer in places such as local schools while younger folks will undertake programs to teach seniors about handling the latest technology.

“What we’ve learned over the years is that older adults are a major contributor to our society,” Accius said. “What we’re seeing now is the generations coming together.”

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.