When the COVID-19 pandemic began within the United States in early 2020, residents of long-term care facilities — including assisted living communities, skilled nursing facilities, nursing homes and other facilities — were severely affected by widespread infections and deaths. Operators acted quickly to restrict visitor access and limit resident activities. As a result of social distancing measures and other safety precautions enacted to reduce the spread of the virus, many older adults faced detrimental interruptions to care that have severely decreased quality of life. 

Telehealth quickly was leveraged to provide safe, virtual care to meet the ever-increasing needs of the senior population, who have faced additional loneliness, depression and isolation during these troubled times. Now more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States, telehealth has proven its value and is a necessary solution that is here to stay. Its ability to facilitate essential care for the senior community — particularly mental health care — is a testament to its potential longevity beyond the pandemic. 

The mental health need for elderly through virtual care

A critical need for telehealth exists — more specifically, behavioral telehealth — within the nation’s senior community. The U.S. senior population is growing at a rapid rate and is expected to double over the next three decades from 48 million to 88 million. This significant increase necessitates scalable, more accessible healthcare solutions designed to provide care efficiently and effectively for an aging and mobile population.

Unfortunately, many older adults choose not to seek mental healthcare due to social stigma, which can leave serious conditions such as depression and cognitive decline untreated. The CDC estimates that more than 20% of the 55 and older community face some form of mental health concern, most commonly depression, anxiety and isolation. Some studies have indicated that these factors lead to an accelerated cognitive decline. The CDC also says that more than 40% of assisted living communities do not offer mental health services.

Mental health challenges are even more predominant for older adults within long-term care facilities, and circumstances undoubtedly only have worsened over the past year. Research shows that more than half of nursing home residents without cognitive impairment have reported feeling loneliness, isolation and depression. Additionally, behavioral conditions amongst the elderly often contribute to a significant decline of other comorbid ailments such as diabetes and cardiac issues. 

A serious need exists for quality healthcare for the aging population, and with the physical and social limitations that older adults face when seeking in-person care, which in some cases only have been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth is a viable solution. 

Telehealth drives improvement in care 

Not only does telehealth safely provide more accessible patient/resident care desperately needed for the senior population, but it also improves care outcomes. According to our recent data study, telehealth can result in considerable reductions in the use of dangerous psychotropic drugs. Telehealth empowers mental health professionals and other practitioners to reach patients/residents who otherwise may not receive the specialized, one-on-one care they need.

There is a significant shortage of mental health providers, including psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and psychiatric providers such as nurse practitioners. In senior living, this shortage of trained professionals can lead to dire consequences for the elderly, a vulnerable population.

Virtual care is the great equalizer, disrupting the existing paradigm barriers of geography, travel, weather conditions and other impediments that contribute to accessibility difficulties and inefficiencies of care. Not only is virtual care lifting the burden off of patients/residents, but according to our estimates, we are able to see more than 25% more people in need of care.

Before the availability of behavioral telehealth services, mental health providers often were unable to accommodate patients requiring emergency or more acute needs. With tele-technologies, including mobile health app-based access, people can be cared for in place without interruption and providers can transition care to whatever location the individual requires, including a traditional home or congregate setting. Hopefully, the pandemic will accelerate federal and state legislation enabling permanent access to telehealth and digital technologies by removing regulatory hurdles that existed before COVID-19.

By improving access to quality care and the efficiency with which that care is delivered, telehealth has the potential to positively affect quality of life — and it hopefully will serve as a catalyst that drives more mental healthcare for the country’s older adult population moving forward. I strongly believe that we are at the beginning of a “change healthcare movement” through tele-technologies and that it will lead to improved care for millions of Americans.

Ed Mercadante, BSPharm, R.Ph., D.Sc.(Hon) is CEO of MediTelecare, a leading provider of telehealth behavioral services to SNFs and assisted living facilities.