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 The typical face-to face therapy, like Melfi offered Soprano and her other patients, has been replaced by computer and smartphone-based tele-treatment.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.  

AARP concerned for working caregivers. Advice from Dr. Michael Fine

Published in RINewsToday on August 9, 2021

After the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic initially shuttered the nation’s businesses over a year ago and with Delta variant cases now surging among the 50 percent of the population not fully vaccinated, AARP releases a 17-page report exploring the concerns of working caregivers about returning to pre-pandemic business routines. 

AARP’s national survey, examining caregiver concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, was conducted by phone and online panel on July 1-7, 2021, and included 800 U.S. residents 18 years or older who are currently providing unpaid care to an adult relative or friend and employed either full-time or part-time (but not self-employed).

Six in ten caregivers responding to the survey were paid hourly, while nearly four in ten are salaried workers. Almost seven in ten say that their job is “essential.” 

The researchers found that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted how working caregivers balanced their work and caregiving roles. Four in five caregivers expressed feeling stressed by juggling these dual responsibilities. More than three in five of the respondents say that they were spending more time caring for their loved one(s). When asked about the next 12 months, two-thirds of all working caregivers expect some, or a great deal of, difficulty balancing both job and caregiving roles. 

According to the AARP study, “Working Caregivers’ and Desires in a Post-Pandemic Workplace,” about half of working family caregivers were offered new benefits during the pandemic, including flexible hours (65%), paid leave (34%) and mental health or self-care resources (37%). About half of those surveyed were able to telework due to COVID 19; by early July, 22% were still working from home full time and 30% were working from home at least part-time. For those who could work from home, nearly nine in 10 said it helped them balance work and care responsibilities – and 75% are worried about how they will manage when their pre-pandemic schedules resume.

“Employers would be wise to consider how benefits like paid leave and flexible hours can help the one in six workers who are also caring for a loved one,” said Alison Bryant, Senior Vice President, AARP Research in an Aug. 4 statement released announcing the release of the report. “Living through the pandemic was challenging for working family caregivers – while some were helped by new workplace benefits and flexibility, the vast majority are worried about how to balance both roles going forward. Our research opens a window into how the pandemic changed the workplace and what working caregivers are concerned about in the coming year,” says Bryant.

As offices and other in-person workplaces begin to slowly re-open, many caregivers expressed concerns that they would bring the virus home to infect loved ones (63%) or contract COVID at work (53%). About three in five are worried about leaving the person they care for alone while they go to work. Among those who were able to work at home during the pandemic, almost nine in ten would like the option to continue doing so at least some of the time. And more than four in ten caregivers said they would consider looking for a new job if the benefits they were offered during the pandemic were rolled back.

AARP offers a range of free tools and resources to help employers retain working caregivers, including tip sheets, tool kits and online training for managers. The resources are available at www.aarp.org/employercaregivin

Dr. Michael FineThe pandemic of the unvaccinated

Don’t let your guard down, even if you’re vaccinated, warns Dr. Michael Fine, the former Rhode Island Director of the Department of Health. As the COVID-19 Delta variant cases spike across the nation, “it’s the pandemic of the unvaccinated,” he says. “Now 97% of the hospitalized are unvaccinated. As community transmission rises, it is more likely that vaccinated people will get infected and spread the virus,” he says.

Dr. Fine further responded to requests about how we should approach this latest wave of COVID in Rhode Island:

“For most vaccinated people, Covid-19 will be a mild disease,” says Fine.  For those with chronic disease like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, COPD and cancer, one study from Israel suggests that the risk of hospitalization and death is equal to the unvaccinated,” he says.  

“As community transition rises, I’m expecting some hospitalizations and death in vaccinated people with chronic disease. That group would do well to self-isolate — to stay home and let others shop for them, until community transmission falls to less than 35/100,000/week. We are now a place with high transmission, about 140/100,000/week,” states Fine.

Fine urges businesses to require all employees working together to be vaccinated, wear masks and get weekly Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests for the COVID-19 virus.

Teleconferencing technology should replace onsite or outside meetings, he says.  

Working caregivers can be protected from bringing COVID-19 home by being vaccinated and should get two PCR tests a week, and limit contact with other people by avoiding shopping at stores or going to restaurants.

One Year Later – Two Surveys Examine Impact of COVID-19

Published in RINewsToday on May24, 2021

Over the year the raging pandemic has impacted on the physical and mental health of Americans. With daily COVID case counts now the lowest since last year and hospitals seeing less coronavirus hospitalizations, most states, including Rhode Island, are now opening up.

According to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) latest Stress in AmericaTM poll (findings released on March 11, 2021), the nation’s health crisis is far from over. Just one year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, many adults report increased negative behaviors, such as undesired changes to their weight and increased drinking, that may be related to their inability to cope with prolonged stress.

APA’s survey of U.S. adults, conducted in late February 2021 by The Harris Poll, shows that a majority of adults (61 percent) experienced undesired weight changes—weight gain or loss—since the pandemic started, with 42 percent reporting they gained more weight than they intended. Of these individuals, they gained an average of 29 pounds (the median amount gained was 15 pounds) and 10 percent stated they gained more than 50 pounds, noted the poll’s findings.

Gaining Weight Bad for Your Health

Weight changes come with significant health risks, including higher vulnerability to serious illness from COVID-19.  According to the National Institute of Health, people who gain more than 11 pounds are at higher risk of developing Type II diabetes mellitus and coronary heart disease, and people who gain more than 24 pounds are at higher risk of developing ischemic stroke. 

For the 18 percent of Americans who said they lost more weight than they wanted to, the average amount of weight lost was 26 pounds (median amount lost was 12 pounds). Adult respondents also reported unwanted changes in sleep patterns and increased alcohol consumption. Two in 3 (67 percent) said they have been sleeping more or less than desired since the pandemic started. Nearly 1 in 4 adults (or 23 percent) reported drinking more alcohol to cope with their stress.

“We’ve been concerned throughout this pandemic about the level of prolonged stress, exacerbated by the grief, trauma and isolation that Americans are experiencing. This survey reveals a secondary crisis that is likely to have persistent, serious mental and physical health consequences for years to come,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr, PhD, APA’s chief executive officer, in a March 21st statement announcing the results of the study’s findings. 

Evans calls on health and policy leaders to come together quickly to provide additional behavioral health supports as part of any national recovery plan.

The researchers found that the pandemic took a particularly heavy toll on parents of children under 18-years old. While slightly more than 3 in 10 adults (31 percent) reported their mental health has worsened compared with before the pandemic, nearly half of mothers who still have children home for remote learning (47 percent) say that their mental health has worsened; 30 percent of the fathers who still have children home said the same. 

APA’s study also found that parents were more likely than those without children to have received treatment from a mental health professional (32 percent vs. 12 percent) and to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder since the coronavirus pandemic began (24 percent vs. 9 percent). More than half of fathers (55 percent) reported gaining weight, and nearly half (48 percent) said they are drinking more alcohol to cope with stress.

As to essential workers, (either persons working in health care or law enforcement), the majority said that they relied on a lot of unhealthy habits to get through the year-long pandemic. Nearly 3 in 10 (29 percent said their mental health has worsened, while 3 in 4 (75 percent) said they could have used more emotional support than they received since the pandemic began. Essential workers were more than twice as likely as adults who were not essential workers to have received treatment from a mental health professional (34 percent vs. 12 percent) and to have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder since the coronavirus pandemic started (25 percent vs. 9 percent).

Furthermore, people of color noted that unintended physical changes occurred during the pandemic. Hispanic adults were most likely to report undesired changes to sleep (78 percent Hispanic vs. 76 percent Black, 63 percent white and 61 percent Asian), physical activity levels (87 percent Hispanic vs. 84 percent Black, 81 percent Asian and 79 percent white) and weight (71 percent Hispanic vs. 64 percent Black, 58 percent white and 54 percent Asian) since the beginning of the pandemic.

Black Americans were most likely to report feelings of concern about the future, say the researchers, noting that more than half said they do not feel comfortable going back to living life like they used to before the pandemic (54 percent Black vs. 48 percent Hispanic, 45 percent Asian and 44 percent white).  They also feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends (57 percent Black vs. 51 percent Asian, 50 percent Hispanic and 47 percent white).

“It’s clear that the pandemic is continuing to have a disproportionate effect on certain groups,” said APA President Jennifer Kelly, PhD. “We must do more to support communities of color, essential workers and parents as they continue to cope with the demands of the pandemic and start to show the physical consequences of prolonged stress,” says Kelly.

COVID-19’s Impact on Seniors

A newly released AARP study, released on May 10, 2021, has found that more than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, most adults age 50 and older say that it has had a negative impact on their mental health. Researchers found that seven in 10 older adults reported an increase in sadness or depression due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and nearly 8 in 10 said they had increased concern about the future, worry or anxiety. Half of adults 50 and older reported feelings of anxiety in the last two weeks, and 56% noted difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep, say the study’s findings.

“If you are feeling stressed and anxious after the last year, you are far from alone!” said Alison Bryant, Senior Vice President of Research at AARP in a statement announcing the survey results. “As our survey highlights, most older adults’ mental health and wellbeing was affected by the pandemic—and some of the ways we coped might not have been great for our health, either. With many communities returning to normal, we hope older adults will consider taking steps to reclaim their health this spring and summer,” she said.

Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic

According to the AARP study findings, seniors are responding to the increased stress in a variety of ways. About one in four of the respondents reported they are eating comfort foods or “unhealthy foods” like chips and candy more often than before the pandemic. And 27 percent of people 50 and over have increased the time they spend praying or meditating. One in 10 survey respondents reported seeking mental health care in the last year, a third of whom did so specifically because of the pandemic. Overall, 15 percent of older adults said that experiencing the pandemic made them more likely to seek help from a mental health provider if they had concerns.

AARP’s survey also highlighted how the pandemic increased loneliness and isolation among those age 50 and over.  Among older adults, 58 percent reported feeling increased loneliness, and 62 percent were less likely to socialize with friends and family compared to before the pandemic.