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 The typical face-to face therapy, like Melfi offered Soprano and her other patients, has been replaced by computer and smartphone-based tele-treatment.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

Resolutions to getting back on track financially a catalyst for positive change

Published on December 27, 2021 in RINewsToday

With the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, we will see a scaled back Times Square celebration where the ball swiftly drops as 15,000 people, in a viewing area that holds around 58,000 revelers, will loudly count down to one at the stroke of midnight. At this time, we traditionally make New Year Resolutions to accomplish in the coming year – to perform acts of kindness, take steps to ensure our financial security, or for self-improvement.

Experts say that making resolutions can help us set goals and provide us with time for reflection as to what is important to us in the coming year. They can serve as catalysts for positive change and increase our self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. Here are the findings of two resolution studies, recently released by Voya Financial, Inc. and Fidelity Investments that may well be good for your physical health and well-being, and financial health.

Many Seek to Re-Focus Their Life Priorities

As we approach 2022, Voya Financial, Inc. released its latest study with findings indicating that nearly one-third (31%) of survey respondents say they are not planning to make any new year’s resolutions in 2022. According to researchers, the results suggest that nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans might be seeking to re-focus their life’s priorities. 

However, Voya’s latest consumer research survey also revealed that when asked specifically what resolutions individuals do plan to make in 2022, more than half (60%) noted an interest in improving their overall well-being, with 44% noting a focus on physical health and 31% on their mental health.

“For many, it may seem refreshing to see that perhaps many Americans are taking a more holistic view of what’s valuable to them as we approach almost two years of pandemic life, and we understand that the impacts of the pandemic have shifted priorities for many individuals,” said Heather Lavallee, CEO of Wealth Solutions for Voya Financial, in a Dec. 9 statement announcing the study’s findings. “With the much-needed focus on what is most important and valuable, it seems that a good number of Americans are ready to take a pass on the resolution ritual this year. That said, it is reassuring to see that those who are planning to do so are most focused on their physical and mental health,” says Lavallee.

However, surviving the financial impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has many of the survey recipients say that they are monitoring financial changes that might be occurring in 2022, thus indicating that financial security continues to be a priority resolution. 

Voya’s research shows a large number of individuals are likely or extremely likely to: save more for emergencies (76%); reduce or pay down their overall debt (72%); and save for retirement (72%). The researchers also say that these numbers are even higher for those generations who might have been impacted financially more during the pandemic, with Generation Z (89%) and millennials (83%) noting that they are likely or extremely likely to save more in the coming year. 

“We continue to see interest in making changes to feel more financially secure, which is something we have found consistently since the beginning of the pandemic. But what’s most encouraging is the continued interest in saving for those generations who may have been impacted from job loss or furloughs throughout the pandemic,” added Lavallee. “And we’re seeing this shift to more positive savings behaviors in our own data as well — as more than 60% of Generation Z and millennial workers who changed their savings rates in their workplace retirement plan during the third quarter of 2021, increasing their contribution,” he said.

As individuals continue to begin building back savings and improving their overall financial well-being, many also appear to be seeking support from their employer. When asked about the importance of employer-offered benefits, Voya’s survey revealed that the majority of individuals rank the following benefits as important or extremely important: employer-sponsored retirement savings (82%); flexible work hours (77%); mental health benefits (72%); short-term/long-term disability income insurance (76%); and whole life or term life insurance (69%).

“With these findings in mind, and for those employers who are looking to help their employees as we approach the new year, we recommend considering reminding employees of the benefits and resources that are available to them at the workplace, whether that may be an employee assistance program, a resource for helping with elder or child care, or making the most of their benefits to achieve those more financially focused resolutions,” said Rob Grubka, CEO of Health Solutions for Voya Financial. “The reality is that we often find many individuals don’t recognize how many great resources are available to them — and many without cost — directly from their employer,” he says.

Fidelity Survey’s Take on 2022 Resolutions  

According to Fidelity’s 2022 Financial Resolutions Study released just weeks ago, Americans are feeling a little bit more hopeful about their finances in the upcoming year. More than 62% of Americans feel optimistic about their future, despite the unknowns of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, and 72% are confident they’ll be in a better financial shape. Sixty-eight percent are considering making a financial resolution for the new year.

Despite the optimism reflected in this survey, respondents noted that inflation (43%), unanticipated expenses (43%) and COVID-19’s impact on the economy (36%) are their top concerns for the upcoming year. 

Like the Voya’s study, the respondents indicated that they are also making resolutions around physical (74%), mental health (61%)  and general well-being (73%) at higher levels than in the past year. The researchers note that this may be the result of achieving success in 2021 with goal-setting, as greater numbers of people report being able to stick to resolutions in 2021 in all areas; notably, 71% of respondents were able to stick with their 2021 financial resolutions, up from 58% in 2020.

“The country has been through a seemingly unrelenting roller coaster over the past two years, so it’s encouraging to see people feeling more hopeful about the coming year and placing a priority on themselves,” said Stacey Watson, senior vice president of Life Event Planning, Fidelity Investments in a Dec. 9 statement announcing the study’s findings. “This study confirms that actions taken at the start of the pandemic – such as budgeting better and replenishing that emergency savings fund – are becoming permanent habits for many,” she said.

What silver linings did American’s experience during the past two years of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?  Respondents say they became more thoughtful about savings and spending (42%), followed by “becoming closer to family” (39%) and “becoming stronger as a person” (34%). 

The survey respondents also noted they will be taking a more thoughtful approach to finances next year, taking a more practical view toward creating their financial resolutions. 38% say they are considering more conservative goals, a number that is even higher (46%) among the next generation. The top three financial resolutions, identified by this study were saving more money (43%), paying down debt (41%) and spending less money (31%). 

For those looking to save more in 2022, the objectives are somewhat split—51% plan to save for the long term, while 49% are looking at shorter-term objectives, such as boosting emergency savings or saving for a mortgage. Among the next generation, 62% plan to increase their retirement contribution in the year ahead, at a far higher level than older Americans (34%).

And what do people say they want to do once they’ve paid off the bills and set aside money for the future? By far, Americans are looking to get away if it’s safe to do so, as travel tops the list for where people plan to spend their extra dollars.

Compared to last year’s Financial Resolution Study, however, the latest study suggests stress levels—those things keeping people up at night—have significantly decreased. When stress is present, it involves finding money to save after paying monthly bills, the ability to simply pay bills and saving for retirement, say the researchers. Part of this stress reduction may be attributed to acceptance, as 84% of Americans say after living through the pandemic, they’ve learned to let go of worrying about that which can’t be controlled.

With New Year’s Day just five days away, if you have not done it, it’s time for you to write your resolutions for 2022.  Have a great year…

A Call for House Dems to Bring Back House Aging Committee

Published in RINewsToday on August 16, 2021

Just days ago, Congressman David Cicilline, along with fellow lawmakers, Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Doris Matsui (D-CA), who serve as co-chairs of the House Democratic Caucus Task Force  on Aging and Families, introduced H. Res. 583 to amend the rules of the House to establish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. This is the Rhode Island lawmaker’s fourth attempt, and it might well succeed with two co-chairs of the House Caucus Task Force on Aging and Families cosponsoring the resolution.

Getting Schakowsky and Matsui on board is “very significant,” says Cicilline.  He also has the support of the prestigious Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Council on Aging Organizations (LCAO), representing 69 national aging groups.

The original House Permanent Select Committee on Aging, which was active between 1974 and 1992, conducted investigations, hearings and issues reports to inform Congress on issues related to aging, putting a legislative spotlight on the challenges and issues facing the growing aging population in America. 

H. Res. 583 would reestablish the House Aging Committee without having legislative jurisdiction, this being no different than when the permanent committee previously existed. It would be authorized to conduct a continuing comprehensive study and review of aging issues, such as income maintenance, poverty, housing, health (including medical research), welfare, employment, education, recreation, and long-term care. These efforts impacted legislation taken up by standing committees. It has been referred to the House Rules Committee for consideration.

It’s relatively simple to create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee, says the Congressional Research Service. All it takes is a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other issues that need to be address.  Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

An Urgent Time Requires Passage of H. Res. 583  

“America’s seniors have spent a lifetime working hard and moving our country forward and they deserve the best in their retirement,” says Cicilline. “The pandemic has disproportionately impacted seniors and now with growing concerns about inflation, seniors on fixed incomes will bear the burden of the rising cost of prescription drugs, food, housing, and other essentials,” he says, noting there has never been a more urgent time for Congress to reauthorize the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging than right now. 

“The pandemic magnified gaps in U.S. policy that routinely forget about Older Americans and the need to nurture a culture that respects them. From the lack of a universal long-term care policy to barriers to vaccine access earlier in the pandemic, these are issues that need to be examined so that Congress can put forward strong solutions to support our aging population and the communities they live in,” says Schakowsky. 

“Older Americans today face many difficulties—including achieving retirement security and affording the rising costs in health care and prescription drugs—which have only been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Matsui, stressing by creating a House Aging Committee Congress can continue to strengthen and support policies that are important to seniors throughout the country. 

Supporters Call on House Resolution’s Passage 

As the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO), the preeminent national organization representing and focused on the well-being of older adults, noted in its letter of support for reestablished the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging, “now is the opportune time to reestablish the HPSCoA. Every day, 12,000 Americans turn 60. By 2030, nearly 75 million people in the U.S.—or 20% of the country—will be age 65 or older. As America grows older, the need for support and services provided under programs like Social Security, SSI, Medicare, Medicaid and the Older Americans Act also increases.”

“We strongly support Cicilline’s legislation to re-establish the House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. This committee did crucial work on behalf of American seniors between 1974 and 1992, including investigating nursing home abuse, promoting breast cancer screening for older women, improving elderly housing, and bringing attention to elder abuse, among other issues,” says Max Richtman, president and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, warning that “we should not wait another day to re-establish a committee dedicated to protecting America’s seniors.” 

“Cicilline is 100% right that it is time to re-establish this vital committee, with ten thousand Americans turning 65 every day, amid a pandemic that has taken a disproportionate toll on seniors.  Today, there are a new set of issues that demand the attention of a dedicated House committee — prescription drug pricing, long-term care, soaring medical costs and the future of Social Security and Medicare,” adds Richtman.

Bob Blancato who had the longest tenure of any staff on the Committee said: “First I commend Cicilline for introducing the legislation.  The timing was especially good as the release yesterday of the 2020 Census data shows a continued sharp increase in the number of older Americans in our nation.” 

“While I support this legislation it does face considerable odds to gain passage,” warns Blancato, noting that two things could change that.  “The resolution must have backing from House Leadership especially from Speaker Pelosi and it must become bipartisan as the original Committee was.  In the end it is about how do advocates make this into a political issue.  This is an opportunity for the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations to show if it has clout,” he says.

Adds, CEO Sandy Markwood, of National Association of Area Agencies on Aging: “We are a rapidly aging nation: one in five Americans will be age 65 or older within this decade. This historic demographic shift requires policymakers and the public to factor in aging and how we can age well at home and in the community into every policy conversation. For this, the House of Representatives should have a special aging committee as the Senate does: to spotlight not only older Americans, but also the impact of this massive shift on all generations, our communities and society at large. COVID-19 shone a bright spotlight on what we need to do to help older adults age well at home, but local aging leaders like n4a’s members need the House’s leadership to give aging policy the focused attention it deserves…and our demographics demand.”

According to Robert S. Weiner, a close friend and confident of House Aging Committee Chair Claude Pepper (D-Florida) who served as his committee Chief of Staff, the Special Committee was and can  again be the protector of seniors.  “Among its most significant actions — all bipartisan– were advocating and causing enactment of  the law, passed 359-2 in the House and 89-10 in the Senate, barring age based “mandatory retirement and protecting people over 40 from age discrimination,” he remembers.

“The courts are now fudging with that clear intent, and the House Aging Committee would be a visible and influential protector. Transparency by nursing homes and congregate housing settings– as mandated by laws pressed by Pepper decades ago but now ignored —  would be another benefit,” states Weiner. “In housing, health care, nutrition, crime victimization, transportation, accessibility, and social services –in the whole array of actions stopping ageism by local, state, and federal agencies and the courts, including the Supreme Court — the House Aging Committee would again be an invaluable champion for seniors,” he adds. 

“During the 117th Congress, passing H Res. 583 is also necessary to protect against under-the-radar political invasions of Social Security’s surplus — a fund paid by seniors in the program– and attempts to use the money to pay for other programs including tax cuts for the wealthy,” warns Weiner.

As a long-time Washington insider, Weiner says the best way to pass H Res 583 to reestablish the House Aging Committee is for the chief congressional advocate, Cicilline, to talk directly with the top three House leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD and Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and makes the case on the merits and bill’s support while asking for quick endorsement. “Looking back, “that’s how Pepper always did it – he’d pull people to a place on the floor and talk with them there, or on the phone. 

Weiner recalled how Pepper, the fierce aging advocate from Florida, called Rosalyn Carter to ask her husband, President Jimmy Carter for a meeting to discuss the mandatory retirement Carter who ultimately endorsed the bill.  It passed the House 359-2 and the Senate 89-10, being considered by Congress. Ultimately, “the full House Aging Committee (40 members) met with and there was a glorious White House signing ceremony,” he says.

A Call for House Leadership Support 

Cicilline goes into the 117th Congress with the support of long-time Congressional senior advocates, Schakowsky and Matsui and the backing of a prestigious coalition aging organizations to bring back the House Aging Committee.  It will happen this Congress if House Speaker Pelosi along with Majority Leader Hoyer and Whip Clyburn can bring the moderates and progressives of the Democratic House Caucus together to support H. Res. 583.  

Politically it’s the smart thing to do.  It’s a winning policy issue for America’s seniors and this group has traditionally been the highest turnout age group in elections.  But, more important, it’s the right thing to do especially at a time when seniors have been a disproportionately impacted by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.    

I say pass H. Res. 583.