Connecting through Technology during COVID-19
Langlade County Healthy Aging in Rural Towns Project
and the 4-H Tech Changemakers
By Molly Schwebach, Paul Grinde, Holly Luersson and Laura Rydberg
Nursing home residents are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. They are mostly older adults, often with other medical conditions, who live in close quarters with many other people. To curb the impacts of the virus on this population, strict controls were implemented limiting visitors and oversight.
Langlade County Healthy Aging in Rural Towns (HeART) Project member, Paul Grinde, was particularly disturbed as months of restrictions wore on. “When COVID broke out, I saw a lot of these families being separated. When my wife, Marlene, passed, I was able to hold my wife’s hand through all this stuff. I was there with her, and it broke my heart to see these families that couldn’t be with their loved ones when they were seriously sick or dying. They died alone without hearing those peoples’ voices.”
Paul decided to do something to help families connect during this difficult time. “One of the big things when somebody starts to have dementia, is they can’t answer the phone. The phone is too confusing for them.” Paul started doing some research and discovered the Amazon Echo Show 5. “The Echo Show 5 is a device that you can set right on their table right next to their favorite chair. You set it there, and it’s connected to your cell phone, your smart phone. You can drop in on them. They’re sitting there and all of a sudden, the device becomes alive. Your smiling face is there, and they can see your face and can talk to you.”
With the technology in hand, Paul needed support to further develop and pilot the concept. The project turned out to be a perfect fit for the local chapter of Tech Changemakers, a group of five Langlade County high school students organized under the University of Wisconsin-Extension 4-H program. The Tech Changemakers had already been working with the HeART Project on media, videos and tech support for older adults. Program Educator, Holly Luersson, says, “This was such a unique opportunity. It was just timely…because of COVID and the need to be able to connect loved ones…. Part of 4-H is our service learning projects, giving back to the community, and so we could bring a group of people together and find a way to help address that need.” Thrivent Action Team provided seed money to purchase some of the initial devices
The team spent several months learning how the devices work, developing a vision for the project, and making plans to move it forward in the community. They developed simple instructions to help nursing home staff and family members understand how to install and use the Echo Show 5. For people who need some extra assistance getting started, Paul and the Tech Changemakers provide one-on-one support. “Yesterday, I had a lady come over, and I said, ‘Well, we’ll just sit here in my office and we’ll set it up together.’ Then she called me back later that afternoon, and she was all excited because Mom was excited.”
The impacts go beyond the individual families who are now better connected because of the Echo Show 5 Project. Tech Changemaker, Laura Rydberg describes her experience, “My work with the HeART Project has helped me realize that there are so many ways to help others. Tech Changemakers has taught me how to be a better leader and has encouraged me to improve my own technology skills. I find it amazing to actually see people use the Echo Show 5 with their grandparents or parents and be able to connect with their relatives in the nursing homes even during the pandemic. The best part is the actual results and the happiness that the user gets out of the project.”
So far, the project has distributed six devices. Paul and the Tech Changemakers would like to evaluate and improve on their Echo Show 5 installation instructions as well as spread this model across the state and beyond. Holly shares the next steps will be getting word out about the project, sharing it with other Tech Changemakers teams so they can bring it to their communities, and finding more local families that could benefit from an Echo Show 5. She says, “This is easy, let’s get this done.” Paul agrees, “My objective is that if we can get it rolling, then it develops a life of its own. At this point, I’m happy to buy them, give them to people and provide training to those who will use them to communicate with their loved ones.”
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities could be locked down again at some point in the future. Do not wait to get your loved one connected. It is much easier to set up when you can physically bring the device into the home. Call Paul at 715-216-8718 to see if an Echo Show 5 may work for your family. To connect with the Tech Changemakers team or Holly Luerssen, call the Langlade County Division of Extension office at 715-627-6236. A limited number of devices will be provided to families at no cost.
This article produced with support from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing Center for Aging Research and Education.