Maintaining Connections: Social and Digital Links Later in Life

Researchers globally are trying to understand how digital technologies can help to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness among older adults. In other words, how can digital connections support social connections?
Maintaining Connections: Social and Digital Links Later in Life
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Echoing international trends, “the number one emerging issue  in Canada is keeping older people socially connected and active.”  Between 19 - 24% of older Canadians experience events in later life intensifying feelings of isolation and loneliness: retirement, relocation, and/or death and illness among friends and family. Older adults’ experiences of social isolation are an increasingly important topic of conversation, in part due to the many negative impacts of social isolation on physical and mental health and well-being: increased risk of premature death, depression, falls, cardiovascular disease, and dementia.

Researchers globally are trying to understand how digital technologies can help to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness among older adults. In other words, how can digital connections support social connections? A study supported by TELUS Health uncovered that different technologies (including social media sites, email, photo sharing, and video chat tools) can improve older adults’ feelings of social connection in different ways:

  1. Decreasing feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression.
  2. Supporting conversations with family and friends, strengthening existing or new relationships, facilitating social and emotional connection and engagement.
  3. Encouraging online leisure activities that reinforce social connectivity and intergenerational relationships (e.g., games, music, virtual travel using Google Earth, virtual visits to museums, galleries).
More on the Forum Network: Global Ageing & Technology; Converging Forces Demand Social Consensus & Policy Innovation by Founder and Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Two converging forces – global ageing and technological innovation – are shaping the life of tomorrow. The possible interactions between the two that either conflict with or complement each other depend upon the social consensus and the policy foundations that we develop today, explains Joseph F. Coughlin.

As different technological and digital solutions can help to manage feelings of social isolation among older adults, it’s important to remember that this is a diverse population, with a wide range of lived experiences. There’s no one, right way to be digitally connected; being “connected” will look different from person to person. While the use of technologies among older adults continues to grow, they still remain more likely to be digitally excluded, making them vulnerable to social exclusion and isolation.

Approximately 80% of older adults without a smartphone say they do not have one because they find them difficult to use. 

A new study commissioned by TELUS on the digital divide for wireless service in Canada suggests that a reluctance among some older Canadians to adopt new technologies may pose a barrier to improving digital connection. Of the approximately 4.3M people without a data plan in Canada, older adults make up under half. The most commonly reported reason why people do not have a smartphone is that they have no need or interest, making up approximately 5% of the Canadian population aged 15 and older. The same report also suggests that skills or physical barriers -- like not knowing how to perform certain tasks on a device or having difficulty reading text on a device -- may be another reason why older adults are more likely to be disconnected than their younger counterparts. Approximately 80% of older adults without a smartphone say they do not have one because they find them difficult to use. When older adults do not see value in digital technologies, or struggle to use them, it can challenge efforts to bolster social connection.  

There are many ways to meet people’s digital connectivity needs, but this also creates challenges for crafting policy promoting greater digital connectivity for older adults. People can be defined as living in “digital poverty” if they do not have access to or own certain basic telecom services and technologies. While this approach seems to make measurement straightforward, it doesn’t acknowledge that older adults may choose (or refuse) different technologies and services to meet their specific needs or have different, basic connectivity needs above the chosen minimum. In recognition of these differences, the Australian Digital Inclusion Index might be a helpful tool to use. The Index grades a person’s connectivity from 0 to 100, with a score of 100 representing a hypothetical, fully connected person. This approach is more flexible, making space for older adults to meet their connectivity needs in different ways. But what level of connectivity is “too low” and who needs support? This question can only be answered in consultation with various stakeholders and may differ across nations.  

Since one size does not fit all when it comes to digital connectivity, policy interventions need to be flexible and diverse enough to allow people to choose the types of technologies and services most appropriate for them. However, policymakers are still faced with the challenge of encouraging program uptake, if people who are under-connected see little value from greater connectivity or lack the skills or physical capabilities to effectively use these technologies.

Support should also aim to educate people on the potential benefits of digital connectivity for their health and wellbeing as well as providing opportunities for people to enhance their digital skills.

Providing people with the technologies they need to feel digitally connected is necessary, but not enough. Support should also aim to educate people on the potential benefits of digital connectivity for their health and wellbeing as well as providing opportunities for people to enhance their digital skills. The previously discussed report on Canada’s wireless divide commissioned by TELUS examined digital training and skills and found that learning opportunities that were organic and tied to a concrete need or goal (e.g., accessing a government service online) could be more effective.

As governments and other providers of critical services move to digital-first service delivery, the costs of being under-connected, particularly for older adults, will only increase. With the known detriments of social isolation to older adults’ quality of life, in addition to the known capacity of digital connection to support feelings of social inclusion among older adults, governments have an important and timely role to play in supporting people to become more digitally connected in all the ways that will work best for them.




To learn more, check out also the OECD's work on Digital innovation and inclusiveness

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7 months ago

Readers of this article might like to explore more reports on isolation or loneliness among the elderly here.