New toolkit launched to help deal with isolation

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An older person using technology

Experts from the University of Stirling have launched a new toolkit providing guidance on the role technology can play in combating feelings of isolation among older people.

Dr Louise McCabe, of the Faculty of Social Sciences, has used the findings of her team’s Technology and Social Connectedness (T&SCon) research project to produce the toolkit. The research team includes her Social Sciences colleague Dr Alison Dawson, and Dr Elaine Douglas, of Stirling Management School.

Available via the Scottish Government’s Technology Enabled Care (TEC) Scotland website, the T&SCon toolkit is particularly applicable at this time, when older people are at greater risk of social isolation due to COVID-19 restrictions. It provides guidance for individuals and organisations using technology to connect older people with others.

The T&SCon project recognised the potential of technology in supporting social connectedness among older people, and explored how this could be done most effectively. The project reviewed existing research on the subject, and conducted extensive workshops and interviews with service providers, health and social care practitioners, and older people.

Social isolation is a growing problem around the world, with many countries reporting an increase in the number of people living alone. In Scotland, over the last 20 years, the number of people living alone has increased by a fifth – with the number of one-person households accounting for 35% of all households. Notably, 40% of those living alone are pensioners.

Evidence shows that feeling socially isolated can increase the likelihood of anxiety, depression, cognitive dysfunction, and heart disease among this group.

Dr Louise McCabe, of the Faculty of Social Sciences

Dr Louise McCabe, of the Faculty of Social Sciences

Dr Louise McCabe said: “There was existing research which looked at the broad links between technology and social connectedness, which suggests that people who use internet-based communications tend to be more socially connected. However, that research tells us little about the causality, and whether it is the use of technology that promotes connectedness, or the other way around.

“Our T&SCon research addresses that gap, and has allowed us to produce the toolkit which provides guidance to ensure that the promotion of technology is effective and meaningful for older people.

“We found positive examples of technology supporting social connectedness both directly – such as using Skype to connect with family members abroad – and indirectly – including freeing up time for social activities as a result of accessing services, such as NHS support, through text messages or videoconferencing.”

Dr McCabe has prepared a bite-sized lecture on the important role technology has to play in supporting social connectedness, particularly in the context of COVID-19.

The use of technology also brings limitations and challenges, and the toolkit provides advice on how to recognise and overcome those obstacles. A number of these revolve around considerations of the people who will be using the technology – including the access they may have to it, and common misconceptions around older people’s ability to use technology.

Dr McCabe continued: “There can often be a broad assumption that older people don’t like or can’t use technology but that certainly isn’t something which came through during our research – we found that people’s attitudes are much more individual. Key considerations for organisations looking to introduce technology for older service users include getting them involved in the development process, and then offering training so that they feel comfortable accessing and using new systems and devices.

“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen examples of underlying ageism reflected in responses to the virus, so it is important that we do not exacerbate the already heightened risk of social isolation facing older people. It is vital that service providers and individuals do all that they can to ensure older people do not suffer loss of their social connections during the pandemic and in its aftermath.”

The Technology and Social Connectedness toolkit can be downloaded from the TEC Scotland website here.

Dr McCabe’s bite-sized lecture, on the important role technology has to play in supporting social connectedness, particularly in the context of COVID-19, is available to watch here.

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