In many ways, the COVID-19 public health emergency has been a reminder of the unique ways that seniors are susceptible to loneliness, a social factor that’s increasingly being shown to have a profound impact on one’s overall health.
Last year, 34% of adults between the ages of 50 and 80 reported feeling a lack of companionship or isolation. That number is guaranteed to rise in 2020, as older adults shelter in place and avoid person-to-person contact.
While there are certainly new challenges, Right at Home has never stopped tackling loneliness for its clients, according to CEO and President Brian Petranick.
Omaha, Nebraska-based Right at Home is a home care franchise system with nearly 500 U.S. locations. Right at Home and Right at Home International are wholly-owned subsidiaries of RiseMark Brands.
In the weeks since the coronavirus started spreading, Right at Home and several of its individual franchisees have implemented a number of measures aimed at preventing loneliness among seniors.
Home Health Care News recently caught up with Petranick to learn more about those often creative measures to keep seniors engaged. Highlights from that conversation are below, edited for length and clarity.
In addition to Right at Home, preventing loneliness has grown into a top priority for most Medicare Advantage (MA) plans as well. Over the last two years, many MA plans have contracted with home care agencies and other innovative companies focused on senior connectedness.
Petranick will discuss the evolving MA landscape — and where social determinants of health like loneliness fit in — on June 24 during HHCN’s three-day Medicare Advantage for Home Care Virtual Summit.
HHCN: The coronavirus has made older adults even more vulnerable to loneliness. That’s something senior care advocates had actually been calling “an epidemic” for years. Why?
Petranick: It’s probably for a couple of different reasons. I think, generally, our seniors can tend to feel isolated. For a lot of people, aging is a lonely process. They’re alone. They’re maybe separated from their families. Maybe their spouse has passed away.
It’s often difficult to get out and do the things that they like to do in normal times. It’s difficult [for seniors] to go to church, get to the store or different things like that. Now, I think what’s happened during the pandemic is that this has been exacerbated. It’s been, partly, exacerbated due to the fact that family members now can’t come into the house, in some cases.
Even the day-day-day activities the seniors were recently able to do — maybe that’s getting together with friends once a week to play bridge — have stopped.
Loneliness is something Right at Home and other home care agencies — even MA plans — are starting to target more aggressively. What’s the strategy behind that?
The body’s response to loneliness — the stress that it creates, including both mental stress and physical stress — is similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It has a serious impact on an individual’s health.
Let’s say somebody is alone on a regular basis. That could then turn into depression. If there’s depression, then that could mean that particular person is not as inclined to eat. They’re maybe not as inclined to get up and exercise. They’re maybe not inclined to stay on a consistent regimen with their medications.
All of those types of things contribute to this issue. Loneliness in and of itself isn’t good, but it can quickly snowball into other problems. So that’s why it’s so important to prevent it.
Can you talk about what Right at Home is doing to combat loneliness, especially during the COVID-19 emergency?
We’ve always taken an approach where we’re a partner in care with the family. Sometimes, it’s clients themselves who hire us to, for example, take care of their spouse or something along those lines. But a lot of times, there’s family involved.
We partner with the family and try to construct a care plan around what the client needs, but also based on the family’s wishes and the family’s role. One of the first things we did [during COVID-19] is increase the care-partner mentality. We started reaching out, having a lot more immediate conversations with family members. Those check-in calls are directly tied to the care of our clients.
We reach out to say, “Let’s talk about this environment. Let’s talk about what’s going on. Let’s talk about what your role is going to be.’ We figure out how much time they need from us, then we figure out how we can help clients and their loved ones stay connected.
Right at Home and our franchisees are stepping up in a lot of different ways. We’re seeing people in several of our offices offering free call-checking services. And that’s not only for our clients, but for communities at large. If you need someone to call and check in on your parents to make sure that things are going okay, we’ll do that at no charge.
We’re doing other unique things, too. Some of our offices are working with local musicians and theater groups to stream events for our clients. Clients or their caregivers can tune in and watch a concert or play. Same with exercise videos. We’re streaming these in order to get our clients active and moving. We’ve also taken care packages out to clients in cases where family members don’t reside nearby.
We’re additionally doing some of the things you see trending on social media or on TV in local news stories — having our staff visit clients but socially distance themselves at the same time, maybe by connecting with them through a window.
You highlighted some of the benefits Right at Home provides clients in order to counter loneliness. Has your company partnered with any local organizations to accomplish this?
It’s hard for me to talk about specifically because we’re in so many different markets and there’s not one entity.
For example, in Omaha here, our local franchise owner might have paired up with the Omaha Symphony. In another market, an owner might team up with a local polka band. It’s very market-specific to what’s available. Each owner can really take a unique approach. This is one of the beautiful things about working in a franchise system and with franchise owners — there’s so much creativity.
Did the corporate office set any general guidelines for franchise owners about addressing loneliness amid the coronavirus? Or did local offices take the lead?
It’s a combination of both. First and foremost, we had to set expectations. We stressed that, heading into this pandemic, it’s really important you regularly connect with your caregivers and clients. We stressed reaching out to the families. We put together letters, information packets, videos and other resources at the corporate office, then distributed that all down to our franchise owners.
We also really increased connection and touchpoints between offices and the corporate office. We were doing weekly town hall calls with our entire system in March and April. We were regularly touching base, having conference calls with each state at least once a week.
We also facilitated a lot of discussions. Owners got together to learn what their peers were doing. That’s where a lot of great ideas came from. An owner in New Jersey would hear something that a franchise owner did in California — and then they adopted it.
You mentioned Right at Home’s “check-in calls.” Are offices using any other forms of telecommunication technology to stay in touch with clients or provide care?
We’re just using some of the simple stuff, such as Zoom and FaceTime, when appropriate. Also, our technology partner, ClearCare, has some tools that can be used allowing the family to stay connected with the client. Those tools also help our caregivers stay connected with both clients and families as well.
We’re not specific to one technology platform.
Last year, we covered how Right at Home was strategically adding corporate-owned locations. How’s that going?
Unfortunately, some of the things that we were planning on testing and working on at those corporate locations have not come to fruition yet. We’re just managing this pandemic — and have been for a few months now.
That’s starting to change. We’re starting to get very future-focused again here.
That said, having those locations has been helpful. We have leveraged and used these corporate locations during this pandemic to make sure our care protocols are making sense. We also quickly tested some temperature-taking technology and some of those types of things in our corporate locations.