A health visitor with tablet explaining a senior woman how to take pills.

Aging in Place Takes Dedicated Support Networks

For senior adults, isolation, loneliness and depression are some of the main driving factors behind declines in their health. Two Michigan organizations – ShareCare of Leelanau and Valley Area Agency on Aging – are working to keep seniors connected while they age from the comfort of their homes, with the help of funding from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation.

“Feeling isolated was already an issue before the pandemic – and during the pandemic, it exploded 100-fold,” said Yaushica Aubert, president and CEO of the Valley Area Agency on Aging.

The Valley AAA served more than 100,000 seniors and caregivers in Genessee, Lapeer and Shiawassee counties during 2020 – and their main hurdle was creating connections for homebound seniors.

Thanks to a grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation and contributions from other partner organizations, as well as some of their own funds, the agency was able to launch a telehealth program in 2020. It meant they were able to put tablets in the hands of seniors, turn on internet service at their homes and facilitate check-in calls with case workers.

But the tablets weren’t just for telehealth: the agency staff taught the seniors how to make Zoom calls and use Facebook to stay in touch with their friends and family members. Convincing seniors to use the tablets, however, was task number one for Aubert’s team, as many of them weren’t comfortable with the technology.

“The pandemic helped a lot – because they weren’t able to access some things without the technology,” Aubert said.

Now, the telehealth project lets both the agency staff and family members keep in contact with homebound seniors in a safe, pandemic-friendly way.

Keeping seniors connected and engaged is also a goal of ShareCare of Leelanau, a nonprofit that connects seniors living in Leelanau County with services and activities.

“Our value is in our volunteers,” said Julie Tarr, executive director of ShareCare of Leelanau.

The nonprofit can deliver health services to senior adults at a lower cost than the market offers by using a combination of dedicated volunteers and nursing staff, Tarr said. ShareCare offers transportation services to seniors to get them to medical appointments or to complete other errands, and recently launched a phone reassurance program in which volunteers make calls to homebound adults.

ShareCare is using a grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation to evaluate the benefits of its volunteer program as it shapes its program offerings for the future. Tarr said the nonprofit will be soon launching a volunteer coaching program for family caregivers for people with dementia. It will be a two-pronged approach; using ShareCare volunteers to train family members and a ShareCare registered nurse to do a wellness check on the individual with dementia.

“Caregivers from home-based health agencies are really hard to find, and really hard to pay for,” Tarr said. “The number of family caregivers are increasing; but it’s difficult for them and their health is deteriorating as a result. There needs to be more training and support of family caregivers so they can provide for their loved ones.”

Kelly Brittain, senior program officer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation, said, “Seniors report they want to age in their home and community for as long as possible. Organizations like the Valley Area Agency on Aging and ShareCare of Leelanau are invaluable in increasing the ability for seniors to age in place and providing services that improve the quality of life. The BCBSM Foundation has a focus on seniors, and supporting programs like these is an opportunity to address the well-being of aging Michiganders.”

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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