Staying Connected

Social isolation is hard on everyone, especially for seniors with low incomes. But some of the residents at Mercy Housing’s Francis Heights community have a way to stay connected during this unprecedented time, best of all, seniors can stay at home in a way that’s safe and healthy. AARP Foundation partnered with us to provide 22 senior residents with Alexas, installed on EcoDots — small devices with a big impact. A month before Coronavirus was in the U.S., it just so happened that we spent an entire day implementing this innovative pilot program to serve seniors coping with social isolation.

seniors gathered around table

The Same as 15 Cigarettes a Day?

It’s shocking, but “social isolation is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” according to the AARP Foundation’s research. That’s scary, and especially so for seniors when you consider that nationally, almost 70% of adults living in senior housing are lonely, and social isolation could be affecting as many as 1 in 4 seniors in senior housing. And those that have described themselves as lonely are 59% more at risk of functional decline and 45% more at risk of death.

Even before Mercy Housing learned about these glaring statistics, social isolation was a grave concern of ours for the seniors that call Mercy Housing home, simply because they told us so, and we listened.

Francis Heights is an affordable senior community where we launched the pilot program to introduce Alexas to residents to reduce social isolation.

AARP Foundation shares Mercy Housing’s values and they partnered with us through an $8,000 grant to purchase the Alexa devices and offer onsite training with their partner Live Tech — they’re calling it their Connected Communities program and it includes a variety of wraparound services and is the result of thorough research and testing.

The Day It All Began

It was just before 9 a.m. at Francis Heights community, and the lobby was already bustling with activity. A man proudly rolled into the driveway on a big cruiser bicycle, side-saddle baskets brimming with groceries. He removed his helmet and shades before waving to fellow residents as he strolls through the entrance. The lobby was warmly lit where visitors were checking in with the front desk’s attendant. Others headed out to catch the bus at the stop just across the street. A casual glance at the bulletin board’s calendar would make you think that all the excitement was for one of the many social gatherings listed, but what was going on that fateful Thursday was a little out of the ordinary.

community workers signing up seniors
Residents and staff alike enjoyed chatting and getting to know each other even more.

A group of residents were seated at tables. Deep in one-on-one conversations with Mercy Housing’s Resident Service Coordinators, they were going through the Duke Social Support Index survey together. They were off to the side of the lobby to ensure that their conversations could be private, because they were asking some difficult questions like “Can you talk about your deepest problems with at least some of your family and friends?”

After filling out surveys in the lobby, residents went to the neighboring community room, where they often enjoy routine classes and activities. Today, you could hear the sweet serenade of opera music. Gary is a resident that was signing up for his Alexa. He had asked it to play his favorite opera music. A 40-year resident of the neighborhood and a 10-year resident at Francis Heights, he was learning the ins and outs of his new device. “Alexa, what’s happening today?” Gary asks it, “there’s an Alexa sign up class today” it responds. Gary’s eyes widen in disbelief. “I can do more than just listen to opera music,” he said with satisfaction.

senior resident chatting with staff
Gary, a resident of Francis Heights getting signed up for his Alexa EcoDot

This is an innovative way to increase Resident Service coordinators’ capacity while increasing senior residents’ independence. With their new Alexa’s, they have a tool to do just that. Francis Heights’ Resident Service Coordinators connected the community’s activities list to the Alexas, like coffee hour and computer literacy classes using AARP Foundation’s Community Hub Alexa Skill (these have been postponed, pending COVID-19 updates).

“I want to support residents in any way that I can. Social isolation is a big concern and this program is a great way to keep us connected as a community. We are excited about the community-hub feature which allows us to upload our monthly residential calendar, giving residents a new way to access what’s going on in the community.”—Patrice, Francis Heights’ Resident Services Coordinator

All Hands On Deck

Delia, Chris, Tom and Todd were hard to keep up with that day. They were helping every step of the way. Upon request, they even accompanied residents to their apartments to help maximize their Alexa setups in their homes, so that everything connected smoothly. From the community room to the lobby, and up to rooms throughout Francis Heights’ high-rise apartments — they were running laps. They aren’t social workers or Resident Services coordinators, they’re part of Mercy Housing’s Information Technology team. For Mercy Housing staff to deliver on our mission, sometimes we have to get out of our ordinary tasks to ensure that residents are getting what they need to be successful with the respect, justice, and mercy they deserve. There’s no better way to serve residents than to walk and talk with them so that they can meet their goals on their terms.

staff and residents chatting at table
Tom got to know Barbra and many other residents as he and the Mercy Housing IT team got residents connected to their EcoDots with Alexa

“I guess I wanted to get caught up with technology and this will be like having a right hand,” says Barbara, one of the residents that got signed up and connected to an Alexa. She’s lived at Francis Heights since 2009. She’s a writer and was excited, talking about a play that would soon be showing at a local community theater — Barbara wrote it herself. Not only is she a writer, but she also enjoys volunteering at Francis Heights’ community events too.

Later in the afternoon, we caught up with Tom, he was checking in with Gary’s setup in his apartment. The placement and sound quality of the new Alexa can make a big difference in its usability. Together, they’re running through all the device’s bells and whistles. He’s making sure that Gary feels comfortable and confident using it to complement, not complicate his life. Gary wants to keep his ability to live independently while still staying in touch with his neighboring residents. “As long as I can do something for myself, I prefer to do it myself,” he says proudly when asked about his daily routine. A Wyoming native, he hails from Cheyenne, Wyoming but Colorado has been his home for over 40 years. He’s a passionate collector of arrowheads, loves classic films, and enjoys history. As we were chatting with him about these interests, Tom chimes in “Alexa, pull up trivia about classic films,” and then “Alexa, what’s the best pharmacy around here,” “Alexa, play Pavarotti,” casually finding ways to incorporate Alexa into Gary’s life whether that’s through entertainment or even help contacting someone in case of an emergency. Alexa setups are about building access to the things that seniors like and want in their lives.

resident showing his arrowhead collection
Gary discussed his passion for arrowhead collecting and how he’ll likely use his Alexa to further his research.

“I’m not successful unless residents are. To do that, I have to get to know them, chat with them, and understand what residents’ daily lives are like. Gary wasn’t the only person to learn something today, I learned A LOT too — how to better serve the people that call Mercy Housing home. It’s a reminder of the important things that everyone needs as people age, and most importantly, how we can help them to age in grace.” — Tom, Mercy Housing Vice President of IT

senior resident Gary sitting in living room
Tom and other Mercy Housing staff worked hard to ensure that Gary and other residents felt good about their new devices.

No Better Time Than Now

This was only the beginning. We feel lucky and are so thankful that we happened to implement the AARP Foundation Connected Communities program before everyone had to shelter in place due to the coronavirus tragedy. It goes to show, that the time is always right to help people in need, and why Resident Services have, and will continue to make such a profound difference for Mercy Housing residents. We see technology as a facilitator, not a substitute for connecting people socially, there’s just no substitute for having someone by your side.

Learn more about how you can help people at Mercy Housing communities cope with isolation and what else we’re doing to keep Mercy Housing residents, staff, and partners safe.

Learn more about AARP Foundation and the AARP Foundation Connected Communities program.