Remote Therapy Is on the Rise — Can it Help More Baby Boomers?

Baby Boomers have been far less likely to seek out therapy than younger generations. Will the convenience of telehealth change that?

The pandemic created a sea change in many sectors. It upended the modern workplace. It closed classrooms and storefronts and moved so many of our services online. Therapy was not an exception. 

Before the pandemic, only about 20 percent of psychologists reported ever treating their patients by phone or video. Now, nearly 96 percent report providing telehealth, according to a recent American Psychological Association survey. And that may be powering another change too. The convenience of remote sessions may help bring more Baby Boomers into the fold, a demographic that’s been resistant to mental health treatment. 

One study found 22 percent of Baby Boomers (people ages 54 to 72) had ever received mental health treatment in the past, compared to 35 percent of Millennials and 37 percent of Gen Z. That gap is the result of a couple different things, says Dr. Vaile Wright, the APA’s senior director of health care innovation. Part of it is that older people are generally more emotionally resilient, Dr. Wright says.

“They’re much more likely to have experienced an adverse situation and overcome it, and built resiliency from that, and additional coping skills,” she says. As more Baby Boomers retire, they’re also less likely to encounter the stress that comes with work or raising children. Another big piece is that there’s a certain stigma associated with mental health treatment that has eroded — slowly. 

But one thing that’s changed fast is the ease of access. While lockdown restrictions kept Americans at home, the federal government waived some key barriers to accessing telehealth for Medicaid and Medicare recipients. Previously, the plans would only cover a fraction of remote therapy expenses compared to in-person sessions; now they’re covered at the same rate.

“What was unique and disruptive about Covid was those barriers were temporarily removed and that really enabled this drastic uptick,” Dr. Wright says. 

It was a change that was really needed. Thousands of Americans were dying from Covid-19, the country was grappling with its history of racism and was hurtling toward a divisive election. And Baby Boomers were especially vulnerable, says Harry Ritter, the founder and CEO of Alma, a mental health startup. 

Covid-19 is more often fatal for older people, and, as a result, more Baby Boomers saw their friends and colleagues die of the virus. They were also more likely to be socially isolated during lockdown. Plus, many of them are caregivers, looking after parents at nursing homes and facilities, some of which were devastated by Covid-19, says Meghan Newman, a mental health counselor working with older clients in Rochester, New York. 

“Baby Boomers are in such an interesting space, because either they’re caring for themselves or their partner, or their aging parent. And sometimes they’re sandwiched, where they’re also potentially caring for college or high school-aged kids,” says Newman, who’s noticed a rise in older caregivers seeking therapy. “They’re just under a lot of pressure.”

Being able to access therapy without leaving your home has been a game-changer — and Ritter expects it’s a change that’s here to stay. Already, legislation is being considered that would make the temporary expansion of telehealth during the pandemic permanent. 

There’s research that shows receiving therapy by phone or video is as effective as face-to-face sessions, according to Wright. Newman has said that her clients adapted quickly to it and some even preferred it, because of the convenience. And patients are continuing to opt for remote treatment even after offices opened back up. 

“What we keep hearing is that in most areas of medicine, they’ve seen a pretty quick snap back to the old pattern of going into the doctor versus being online,” Ritter says. “Mental health is very much the outlier.”

Ritter expects the expansion of online therapy to push more people of all age groups into treatment. It really lowers the stakes, especially for first-time patients who might have been on the fence about therapy or felt intimidated by the concept to just give it a shot. 

“What’s nice about the age of telemedicine is that it doesn’t require you to commute for 30 minutes, and sit in a waiting space, and all the other stuff. It just requires you to turn on your laptop and dedicate an hour,” Ritter says. “The barriers are so low, it’s easier to try than it’s ever been before.”

For those of you looking to take the plunge into teletherapy, here are some things to consider.

The Cost of Teletherapy

Wright suggests first thinking about your budget. For Baby Boomers who can afford a higher co-pay, you’ll have more options. If you’re on a tighter budget, you’ll probably want to look for a Medicare provider. 

How to Find the Right Therapist For You

You can get a referral from your primary care provider, friends and family may be able to suggest someone, or you can go online to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website, Dr. Wright says. Startups like Alma or Talkspace also have easy to use platforms that can help connect you to specialists in your area.

Most therapists will have an introductory call with patients, and Dr. Wright suggests using that time to ask questions about their approach to therapy and their experience and to be open about why you’re seeking treatment. 

Once you get the ball rolling, be patient: “It might not gel the very first session, but give it a couple sessions,” Dr. Wright urges. “And if it doesn’t work, don’t get discouraged. Try to find somebody else, because it can just sometimes be about fit — about having the sense that they get where you’re coming from and you have aligned goals about how to get where you guys both want to go in the therapy.”