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Kevyn Burger September 27, 2019
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Online event probes the research about technology solutions for social isolation

There’s a secret ingredient that consistently gets left out when developing technology aimed at easing the epidemic of social isolation in older adults.

What’s too often missing is the input and feedback of the ultimate user—the older people themselves. As a result, programs and products meant to ease their loneliness can miss the mark.

That was just one of the findings presented during a Stria-hosted online event for professionals working across sectors in the longevity market. Attendees first listened to research and insights from expert panelists working to address the loneliness problem with technology. They then shared their own insights with their peers, and got to test drive a new videoconferencing platform designed for older adults in the process.

The live online event capped off Stria’s month-long editorial series of in-depth reports and expert commentaries that examined the topic.

Defining the Need and Personalizing Solutions

Stria founder and CEO Susan Donley framed the scope of the problem, which is reaching epidemic proportions. The impact of isolation, she noted, is not evenly distributed: half of those who earn under $25,000 per year and nearly half of LGBT seniors are lonely, and caregivers are 8% more likely to be lonely than the average older American.

“Reducing the risk looks different from person to person. There’s no one-size-fits- all,” explained panelist LaNita Knoke, health care strategist at event sponsor Home Instead Senior Care. “We have to understand what their needs are.”

Knoke stressed the value of building technology into care plans to reduce loneliness and address the physical and mental health problems that often accompany it. She advises both family and professional caregivers to use tech and digital options to enhance an older person’s social connections and give them new opportunities to engage and look forward.

“Tactics depend on the person. It’s important to evaluate which connections will make the most difference for that person,” she said. “There is a risk of a mismatch. Just because one person finds a meaningful connection through social media or FaceTime doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.”

Technology Use ‘In Real Life’

Panelist Dr. Kerry Burnight finds that much of the research on how older people regard technology is flawed and paints an unrealistically rosy picture of their use.

“What I was reading (in the research) and what I was observing was so different,” said Burnight, a former professor in geriatric medicine who is now chief gerontologist at GrandPad, a tech company that produces hardware and software for tablets specifically for ease of use by “super seniors,” the oldest segment of the aging cohort.

Burnight said surveys that find older people comfortable and competent using technology often over-sample respondents who are aged 65 to 74, and don’t include enough responses of users older than that. She added that much traditional research is conducted in phone calls, thereby excluding older people with visual, hearing and cognitive impairments.

GrandPad’s In Real Life study went into homes of adults aged 75 to 94, spending an hour with them and asking them to demonstrate their use of tech and digital tools.

“We asked them, can you share photos? Can you initiate a video call? Can you enjoy digital music?” she said. “When we asked them to show us how they do it, they weren’t actually able to. The technology is not aligned.”

In the In Real Life study, 95% of the older adults in the sample could not participate in video calls, which Burnight calls “incredibly valuable” in bridging the loneliness gap.

“Because we can see one another and can read one another’s lips, there’s a great sense of connection,” she said.

Burnight cited GrandPad’s use of its focus group panel of so-called ‘Grand Advisers,’ between the ages of 85 and 105, for providing insight on how to develop the tablet and support services for users and their families.

“We must listen. We were doing things to and for older adults, then with them. The ultimate solution is doing things by older adults,” she said. “Technology must be humanistic and respectful.”

Making Virtual Connections

The Stria Live event was presented on OneClick.chat, the first video-chat based social engagement platform designed specifically for older adults. Company founder and CEO Dillon Myers is leading a National Institute on Aging-funded study on the positive health effects of socialization over video chat for older adults, and the findings are consistent with the In Real Life study by GrandPad.

“We found that 80% of older adults have rarely or never used video chat but 90% of them wanted to use it. Their biggest hold up was their impression that it was difficult to use or that there wouldn’t be enough instruction so they could use it independently,” Myers said.

Another misconception that Myers cited is that older people are not interested in forging new friendships and relationships. His research found that older adults eager to use technology to make those connections that ultimately reduce loneliness.

“They have very positive attitudes towards using video chat to socially engage with others around topics of shared interests, like books and movies, health and travel, and also to use video chat for lifelong learning classes and as a way to join support groups,” Myers said. “It’s creating a way for them to regularly interact with people who are interested in the same topics as them, and have it be convenient through technology.”

With the push of a button, OneClick.chat can put participants into four-person groups where they can engage in smaller video chats. The attendees at the Stria Live event got to try out the feature when they went into breakout groups to virtually brainstorm and share their own expertise about how to expand technology in combatting social isolation in older adults.

Assuring Technology Brings Us Together

Susan Donley set up the prompt for event participants’ short discussions: “How do we in the field be sure we are leveraging technology to bring people together rather than dividing people more?”

Some of the solutions that groups identified and then shared through the platforms’ video and text chat, included:

  • Finding ways to use technology to handle menial tasks that are frustrating elements of the caregiver-care recipient partnership so that both can better focus on the part of the relationship that give satisfaction and pleasure.
  • Understanding segmentation of the older population to better serve them, acknowledging that the needs of a 60-65 year-old are very different than an 85-90 year old.
  • Stressing the importance of co-developing products and services with older adults early on, rather than bringing them in at the end of the process
  • Recognizing that ‘it takes a village,’ with people of all ages in the development process.
  • The importance of physical touch in products for older adults. When the user accesses a touch screen, it gives them a a sense of agency in making something happen.
  • Heightening the awareness that older adults use technology differently than their younger counterparts, and have different goals for it.
  • Programs and workshops that teach tech techniques have an added bonus—when older people sit in a class of other older learners, it reminds them that many of their peers also need help feeling comfortable with devices.

Event participants received a downloadable resource guide capturing recent studies and reports on social isolation (available for full-access subscribers).

Miss the Stria Live event? Watch a recording here.

Stria sponsors GrandPad and Home Instead made “The Role of Technology in Social Isolation” special editorial series possible.

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Kevyn Burger

Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer. She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier.

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