COVID-19 Funding Will Have Lasting Effect on Technology For Utah Agencies

By JoLynne Lyon | July 13, 2022
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The crisis funding also provided some robotic pets for aging clients to help with
social isolation—and they were a hit for those with dementia.
Photo courtesy of Salt Lake County

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down visits to the physical offices of Utah’s Area Agencies on Aging, senior centers and other facilities. For them, the shift to online services was more complicated than it had been for businesses and education.

Some of their computers didn’t have cameras or microphones. Senior centers offered meals to their clients, and they needed to find a new way to keep providing that service. So many services to Utah seniors had been provided face-to-face, but now they needed to be delivered remotely to clients who were not familiar with technology.

That said, studies are disproving the notion that seniors have no interest in adopting technology. Indeed, seniors ramped up their technology use during the pandemic (as everyone did).

Federal crisis funding was distributed to all states, and in Utah, it made a difference, said Jennifer Morgan of the Institute for Disability Research, Policy & Practice. The $455,000 awarded to Utah’s Aging and Disability Resource Center was administered through the Institute for Disability Research, Policy & Practice.

“We contracted with all 12 area agencies on aging, and two centers for independent living,” said Morgan, who led the effort. “We had coverage statewide in every county. The money was really to help with any emerging needs due to COVID 19.”

Funds helped senior centers transition from sit-down lunches to drive-by, pick-up affairs. “They would just drive through and get their meal, but at least they were seeing somebody,” Morgan said.

A Tooele agency was able to extend services to people with disabilities under 60. The Utah Commission on Aging supported adding a new and improved website for Utah’s AAAs and began adding features: a calendar with online events that could be accessed anywhere in the state; a portal to lifelong learning.

Funding was used to upgrade computers and equipment at the agencies. It paid for iPads that could be checked out to clients for telehealth visits or socializing or attending a virtual class. “Some of these agencies and senior centers had computers that didn't have cameras and microphones, so they were completely cut off from their clients,” Morgan said.

IDRPP’s Utah Assistive Technology Program put together some step-by-step trainings for people with disabilities, their family members, and representatives of education and community living. The trainings included booklets with step-by-step instructions. “The seniors really enjoyed it,” said UATP Director Bora Lee, who trained 350 people statewide. “It wasn’t overwhelming for them.”

The crisis funding also provided some robotic pets for aging clients to help with social isolation—and they were a hit for those with dementia. The pets didn’t shed, didn’t need feeding, didn’t bring allergens into the home and interacted with their owners. Their more than $100 price tag would have been a hurdle for many of the clients who enjoyed them, said Nobu Iizuka, the Weber/Morgan Area Agency on Aging Director. The funding allowed clients to receive the pets for free.

“We did this [placing the robotic pets] maybe six months into the project, where people and agents and staff at agencies were really hitting the dip on stress, trying to handle working remotely, not being able to see their clients,” Morgan said. “It impacted the staff that was able to adopt that pet out as much as it helped the person receiving it.”

The cat seemed a bit more popular than the dog, Iizuka said. The cat made a bit more noise—meows and purring—and the clients liked that. Weber/Morgan ended up giving more than 90 of the robotic animals away.

IDRPP is currently evaluating the effectiveness of robotic pets on reducing social isolation.

Morgan and others will present on their work at the Advancing States home and community-based services conference in Washington DC this August.

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