Connecting Older Adults in Illinois During the Pandemic

From Sept. 19–Sept. 22 ASA will hold a Generations Forum called Age-Inclusive Design in Tech, a four-day deep dive into the topic of age-inclusion in tech. The Illinois Care Connections program profiled below is a great example of how organizations rose to meet the needs of disconnected elders during the pandemic.

At the end of March 2020, I found myself immersed in announcements about the various funding opportunities being releasing during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the senior policy advisor for Illinois’ Department of Aging, it’s my job to provide analysis and be the subject matter expert on policies and programs related to Medicaid, Medicare and home- and community-based services. I also lead the development and implementation of the State Plan on Aging. I joined the department in February 2020, and quickly had to pivot from research, analysis, and long-term planning to writing emergency guidance and managing new programs.

As I prepared to write this post I looked back at my notes from that time. They included a bulleted list with an alphabet soup of acronyms, CARES, OAA, HDM. And a lot of questions. What would be older adults’ greatest needs? Would there be operations in place for getting funding to providers given the Governor’s stay-at-home order? Like most people working in the aging field, we didn’t have many answers.

One of the funding allocations in the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act was for Aging and Disability Resource Center (ADRC)/No Wrong Door (NWD) Systems, and as the State Unit on Aging, the Illinois Department on Aging’s network most closely represents the one-stop shop where older adults can receive services and be connected to others.

The federal guidance was broad, stating it was to be used to serve “those populations most at risk of COVID-19 and mitigate adverse effects resulting from this national pandemic such as social isolation, limited access to nutritional supports and personal care services, etc.”

We knew we’d use the funding for assistive technology so older adults and people with disabilities had some way to stay connected.

We brainstormed and weighed the pros and cons of how to use the funding to best address older adults’ immediate needs. In the midst of senior center shut downs it was almost instantaneous that the answer was to use the funding for assistive technology so older adults and people with disabilities had some way to stay connected to their friends and family. Thus the Illinois Care Connections (ICC) program was born.

Utilizing Partnerships

The Department on Aging had an established relationship with our state assistive technology unit, the Illinois Assistive Technology Program (IATP). IATP has experience through their device loan program and others with providing technology to older adults and persons with disabilities, which made them a natural partner for Illinois Care Connections. We reached out to our sister agencies, the Illinois Department of Human Service Divisions of Rehabilitation Services and Developmental Disabilities to partner to reach adults with developmental and physical disabilities. They also were eager to find solutions for participants who faced closures of day programs and workshops as a result of COVID-19.

To date, ICC has provided more than 4,000 tablets, iPads, Wi-Fi hot spots and accessories to older adults and persons with disabilities. IATP purchases and ships all of the devices, provides technical assistance to recipients and created accessible, printed user guides that are included with every device bundle.

Why the printed user guides? Some people had never used a tablet before; what use would an electronic version be if one didn’t know how to turn on the device? Thankfully, IATP had experts whose job it is to think about accessibility every day, and they guided me. We wanted ensure existing client needs were being served, so referrals for ICC were only accepted from care coordinators and personal assistants or rehabilitation counselors for clients enrolled in one of the state’s home- and community-based services waivers programs.

‘During the first year of ICC, more than 3,000 device bundles were distributed in Illinois.’

Referring providers use the UCLA three-question loneliness scale to determine baseline loneliness levels. IATP conducts a follow-up survey to observe changes in lonely rating post-receipt. That’s right, in the midst of a pandemic we remembered the importance of data collection.

Lessons Learned

The first year of ICC was almost a trial run. Our small team met weekly to problem solve. What should we do if a device bundle became lost or didn’t arrive to its intended recipient? We quickly adjusted the budget to account for shipping insurance and allowed for devices to be shipped to caregiver agencies so an individual’s homecare worker could deliver the devices instead.

During the first year of ICC, more than 3,000 device bundles were distributed in Illinois. The referral forms and follow-up surveys provided substantive data, but I think the letters, emails and photos we received from device recipients tell the real story:

  • “Thanks to the Illinois Care Connections program, I was able to video chat with my daughter during the holidays. I would not have been able to do this if it wasn’t for the generosity of the program.” —Wanda, an older adult from Illinois
  • “…the iPad I received from IL Care Connections helps me connect with others. My grandchildren have helped me learn how to use this equipment, and we share our days with each other. This is very new for me, but I have enjoyed learning this technology.” —Clarence, a senior from Chicago
  • “…I’m sure everyone has different reasons for using their technology devices, but I’m appreciative to be able to have Zoom doctor appointments during the COVID-19 pandemic.” —Sylvia, a disabled adult from Illinois

In the first year, I’m excited to share that 63% of program participants reported feeling less lonely, and 89% of device recipients reported that they would not have been able to obtain the technology needed to address their social isolation without this device.

Tips and Future Plans

Partnership was key for Illinois Care Connections’ success. My main advice is don’t recreate the wheel; seek out traditional and non-traditional collaborators. I’m excited that the data we collected from follow-up surveys and the demonstrated program outcomes allowed us to allocate state general revenue funding for the program in FY22 and FY23.

In the future we plan to add assistive technology and assistive devices to our services covered under the Medicaid 1915(c) home- and community-based services waiver. I know that tablets are just a start. There are researchers, academics, start-ups and students creating assistive technology solutions that could be the difference that allows an older adult to remain in their home and community. I consider that a win for both independence and for ensuring people stay connected.

Amy Lulich, MHA, is the senior policy advisor for the State of Illinois’ Department on Aging in Chicago.