Older adults and individuals with disabilities have been uniquely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and are at a higher risk of social isolation. In response, Connecticut’s Tech Act Project (CTTAP) partnered with the Department of Aging and Disability Services’ State Unit on Aging and other agencies to create the “Stay Connected Program.” Its aim is to provide appropriate AT to help these individuals stay connected with their health providers, doctors, neighbors, family, and friends. In 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act made available a grant of $455,454 to such agencies in Connecticut based on demographics. The “Stay Connected Program” identifies older adults and individuals with disabilities who are socially isolated or at risk for social isolation based on referrals provided by Connecticut’s Area Agencies on Aging and Centers for Independent Living, who conduct a Social Isolation Screening when individuals call their centers. Eligible individuals then receive a remote technology consultation from CTTAP AT Partners, that then determines the individual’s AT device needs, preferences, abilities, and barriers. Once devices are determined and provided, CTTAP AT Partners provide device training through videoconferencing or by phone to the individual or support person in their home. Such devices include tablets, laptops, Amazon Echo, and even phones. As a result, older adults and individuals with disabilities are able to access telehealth, online banking, and online shopping, as well as maintain their social connections to loved ones, family, and friends. As of February 2021, the Stay Connected Program has screened over 600 individuals, of which 230 have been referred to AT consultations and an additional 55 are on a wait list waiting to be served.
CTTAP has had many successes. In reviewing the survey data that is conducted once services have ended, which mirror the Social Isolation Survey, CTTAP recorded a reduction of social isolation scores. As a result of the technology and training provided, there has been an 8-point improvement from socially isolated to not being socially isolated; 67% have reported “more than usual” social interactions; and a great majority are rating their quality of life in the range of 7-10 (on a scale of 1-10). If these trends continue, CTTAP can confidently see the positive benefits of appropriate AT and training on the benefits of social isolation and quality of life of aging adults and people with disabilities.
CTTAP notes that the Stay Connected Program did not come without challenges. One of the most challenging aspects of providing devices that help people stay connected while being socially distant is the fact that not all individuals have easy internet access. For some individuals, the cost of internet is a barrier, and reliable cellular and internet service is still unavailable in parts of Connecticut. Moreover, some participants in the Stay Connected Program are not able to use public hotspots due to the difficulty in accessing them. To combat this issue, CTTAP has tried to use a variety of funding streams to connect individuals to purchased hot spots and internet.
Demand is higher than CTTAP’s capacity to keep up with the number of referrals they have received. In terms of sustainability, CTTAP is trying to work with other community and state entities in hopes they will be able to carry on these services in some way once the grant ends.