Tech use flourishes during pandemic, particularly among seniors

Published on January 10, 2022 in RINewsToday

Over the course of 71 episodes of the widely-acclaimed Sopranos, Dr. Jennifer Melfi met with Tony Soprano in her office. The office had paneled walls, was decorated with a diploma on the wall, and next to that was a bookshelf filled with books. Melfi was counseling Mob Boss Tony Soprano for anxiety and depression. This was the typical office setting in any community before the COVID-19 pandemic spread like wildfire across the nation.  But now with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, therapists are using alternative ways to reduce increasing depression and mental health needs of the patients. The typical face-to face therapy, like Melfi offered Soprano and her other patients, has been replaced by computer and smartphone-based tele-treatment. 

While it remains unclear whether the technique is as effective as face-to-face psychotherapy that takes place in an office, they do offer a promising alternative to address the growing mental health needs spawned by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, and in a safe way, according to a research study published last month by the Washington, DC based American Psychological Association.  

“The year 2020 marked 30 years since the first paper was published on a digital intervention for the treatment of depression. It also marked an unparalleled inflection point in the worldwide conversion of mental health services from face-to-face delivery to remote, digital solutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said lead author Isaac Moshe, MA, a doctoral candidate at the University of Helsinki in a Dec. 13 statement announcing the study’s findings.

“Given the accelerated adoption of digital interventions, it is both timely and important to ask to what extent digital interventions are effective in the treatment of depression, whether they may provide viable alternatives to face-to-face psychotherapy beyond the lab and what are the key factors that moderate outcomes,” he said.

The research article, “Digital interventions for the treatment of depression: A meta-analytic review,” was published online in the journal Psychological Bulletin. Psychological Bulletin, published on Dec. 13, 2021.

According to researchers, digital interventions, instead of the face-to face counseling sessions, typically require patients to log in to a software program on a computer website or app to read, watch, listen to, and interact with a series of content structured modules or lessons. Individuals oftentimes receive homework assignments relating to the modules and regularly complete digitally administered questionnaires relevant to their presenting mental health problems. This allows clinicians to monitor their progress and outcomes in cases where digital interventions include human support. Digital interventions are not the same as teletherapy, which has gotten much attention during the pandemic, according to Mosh, noting that teletherapy uses videoconferencing or telephone services to facilitate one-on-one psychotherapy.

“Digital interventions have been proposed as a way of meeting the unmet demand for psychological treatment,” notes Moshe. “As digital interventions are being increasingly adopted within both private and public health care systems, we set out to understand whether these treatments are as effective as traditional face-to-face therapy, to what extent human support has an impact on outcomes, and whether the benefits found in lab settings transfer to real-world settings,” he said.

According to the website article, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 83 studies testing digital applications for treating depression, dating as far back as 1990 and involving more than 15,000 participants in total, 80% adults and 69.5% women. All of these studies were randomized controlled trials comparing a digital intervention treatment to participants on a waitlist or receiving no treatment at all, or those receiving treatment as usual or with face-to-face psychotherapy. The researcher primarily focused on individuals with mild to moderate depression symptoms. 

Overall, researchers found that digital interventions improved depression symptoms over control conditions, but the effect was not as strong as that found in a similar meta-analysis of face-to-face psychotherapy. There were not enough studies in the current meta-analysis to directly compare digital interventions to face-to-face psychotherapy, and researchers found no studies comparing digital strategies with drug therapy.

But digital treatments that involved a human component, whether in the form of feedback on assignments or technical assistance, were the most effective in reducing depression symptoms. This may be partially explained by the fact that a human component increased the likelihood that participants would complete the full intervention, and compliance with therapy is linked to better outcomes, according to Moshe.

Depression is predicted to be the leading cause of lost life years due to illness by 2030. At the same time, less than 1 in 5 people receive appropriate treatment, and less than 1 in 27 in low-income settings. A major reason for this is the lack of trained health care providers,” Moshe said. “Overall, our findings from effectiveness studies suggest that digital interventions may have a valuable role to play as part of the treatment offering in routine care, especially when accompanied by some sort of human guidance.” 

Tech use by Seniors skyrocketed

As noted above, while the continuing COVID-19 pandemic has increased the popularity of using digital intervention, teletherapy uses videoconferencing or telephone services to facilitate one-on-one psychotherapy, a newly released AARP Tech Trends reports an increased use of technology by seniors to facilitate social contact to families and friends to reduce isolation.

According to AARP’s report released on Dec. 21, tech use by people age 50 and over, skyrocketed during the pandemic and those new habits and behaviors appear to continue.  What’s more, 70% of those surveyed purchased tech last year, with spending far greater today than it was in 2019; $821 now as versus $394, then. Smartphones, and related accessories, along with Bluetooth headsets topped the list of their purchases, but smart home technology was vital to them, too.

Unsurprisingly the researchers say that technology use has facilitated social connectedness with others throughout the pandemic. They found that the rates of reliance on tech for social connection is consistently high across age ranges: 76% of those in their 50s, 79% of those in their 60s, and 72% of people 70+ all count tech as their link to their families and the wider world.

“The pandemic redrew the lines: Tech has gone from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have for Americans 50+, and their new habits are here to stay,” said Alison Bryant, AARP Senior Vice President of Research in a Dec. 21 statement announcing the study’s findings. “Those who can afford tech are spending a lot more than they did just a few years ago – more than twice what they spent in 2019. And their motivations vary: Some use tech to work, others to stay connected to family and friends, and others still to enable them to age in place or get assistance with needs. At the same time, we’re also mindful of the digital divide, where a lack of affordability can also mean no access to tech and its benefits,” says Bryant.

The Tech report noted that seniors continue to incorporate tech into their daily lives. Certain tech behaviors formed during the ongoing pandemic appear to be here to stay such as video chat, making online purchases, ordering groceries, doing banking, and engaging in health services, with seniors making more purchases and financial transactions online compared to previous years. 

Researchers also found that during the last two years, older adults’ usage of a home assistant and owning a wearable has doubled. The Tech study also reveals that learning how to use and manage smart home technology is a top interest of seniors. Smartphones continue to be adopted in new ways to manage day-to-day living and entertainment. This year, one third of seniors ordered take-out food from a restaurant and one in four listened to podcasts on their smartphones. 

Health-related innovations and daily objects that automatically track health measures on tech devices are also of top interest, say the researchers, noting that 42% of older adults feel tech is not designed with them in mind.

Finally, the AARP Tech Trends report found that 30% of older adults are using tech to pursue personal passions, mostly with video content. Streaming content continues to increase with most of them subscribing on average to three platforms. 

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic not going away in the near future, the use of technology will continue to increase to maintain contact with family and friends, to access education, telehealth services, for use in financial transitions, shopping, and entertainment.  

The Best of…Seniors to Become Computer Savvy

Published June  11, 2001, Pawtucket Times

           More than 50 years ago, Richard Walton received a Smith Corona portable typewriter from his parents for his 21st birthday.   Over the years the journalist and writer Walton, now age 73, touched typed eleven books on that bulky machine.  From his college days in the late forties until the early 1990s, he continued to use the antique typewriter.                 

         Today Walton has gone through three computers, his present system is a Compaq Presario, Model 7470.  “It pretty much has all the bells and whistles,” Walton says.  As a journalist he loves his computer because “you don’t have to retype entire pages.”  With his Smith Corona, any typos forced him to retype entire pages.   Now paragraphs can be moved around with ease, to view and change before the final draft.

         Walton gets other bennies from using new computer technology.  “I communicate with people everywhere using e-mail” he say,noting that when he needs to research topics for his articles its simple, just cruise the World Wide Web.

       Walton is one of growing number of seniors who are using the computer to keep in touch with family and friends, word processing documents, keeping the checkbook, making electronic purchases for a vast variety of items, from books, drugstore purchases to travel packages.  Seniors can also tap into this evolving technology to research and buy stocks and to do their banking and pay their bills. 

      Stacy Dieter, vice president of Business Development for SeniorNet, a nonprofit San Francisco-based company that teaches seniors to use computers and the internet, calls seniors “savvy” when it comes to operating computers.  “May be younger people are more use to maneuvering the mouse, but seniors can quickly pick up how the use the computer technology,” she says.

      Older adults are the fastest growing audience online, Dieter tells The Times.   According to Jupiter Communications, Dieter notes that by the year 2003, it is estimated that 27.3 million people over age 50 years old will be using the Internet regularly.”

       Adds Dieter, computer ownership is also slowly increasing too.   A SeniorNet and Charles Schwab & Company 1998 market research study found that 40 percent of all seniors now own a computer at home compared with 29 percent in 1995.  Meanwhile, seniors spend more time per month online (38 hours) than any other age group, with more than 83 percent making daily visits to the Internet, she says.

      Senior centers are also moving into the computer age by making computers more accessible to their older participants.   With assistance from the state’s Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA), a growing number of senior centers acrossRhode Islandare opening up computer labs. 

      With two Compaq computers provided by DEA, one donated by a Rhode Island  Dot.Com company, FindRI.Com, and one surplus City of Pawtucket computer, Joan Crawley, Director of Pawtucket’s Leon Mathius Senior Center, pieced together her equipment, bringing the computer age Pawtucket’s seniors.

        Beginning in June, a small multi-use room in the Senior Center, originally used for health promotion activities, was transformed into a computer lab.   The City of Pawtucket provided the expertise to install the computers with Internet access.

       “We’re in the organizational phase right now,”Crawley says, adding that her waiting list of seniors wanting to learn how to use computers and the Internet has grown to more than 30.

         Although Pawtucket’s Senior Center Director expects the computer lab to be up and running and courses taught by the fall, the computers are now available for use by those who are knowledgeable about their use.  Half and hour time slots will be made available to these individuals.

          Meanwhile, volunteer instructors are now being recruited to teach the basics (using computer’s key board and mouse) to learning computer software programs and how to surf the Internet.          “The perfect volunteer might be someone who has recently retired and wants to share their expertise,”Crawley says.  The more volunteers will allow the computer lab to have extended hours. .

          Why a computer lab?   “We want our seniors to use the Internet to look up information on health care, Social Security or even about Medicare. Crawley notes that a social worker will be available to assist the computer user in culling the needed information from the targeted web sites.

          Crawley adds, “Ultimately we would like to get an e-mail address so that seniors can talk to their love ones who live are far away.”  Additionally, she believes that savvy senior computer users can save money too, by not spending money for newspapers and magazine subscriptions.  They can just use the Internet to seek out information in hundreds of thousands of newspapers or magazines published around the world.

          By adding a computer lab to the Senior Center’s programming, “We’re very excited about bringing Pawtucket’s senior population into the 21st century,Crawley says gleefully.

          SeniorNet is the world’s largest trainer of adults over 50 on computer technology and the Internet with 220+ SeniorNet Learning Centers in 38 states as well as the best on-line community for older
adults at http://www.seniornet.org.

           Herbert P. Weiss is a Pawtucket Rhode Island-based writer covering aging, health and medical care  This article appeared in June 11, 2001 in the Pawtucket Times. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.