Alma’s Technology: A Look at Social Connectedness

Messages from Majd | March 18, 2013

CAST’s new video, , follows 83-year-old Alma Jones on her journey from home to hospital, to a rehabilitation center, and back home. In this third installment of our 12-part series on “Alma’s Technology,” CAST Executive Director Majd Alwan explores social connectedness technologies, one of the technology solutions that helped our fictitious video character live independently.

“All this technology made the impossible possible. Now, I’m not afraid to be alone.”

Being alone is sometimes a regrettable side-effect of aging. Retirement and bereavement can disrupt and shrink social networks. Age-related disability can make it harder to get out of the house and socialize with friends. A shrinking social circle may lead to depression. That, in turn, can cause older adults to withdraw from available social outlets.

Alma Jones doesn’t worry about this. The 83-year-old great-grandmother is the central character in CAST’s new video, called High-Tech Aging: Improving Lives Today. The video shows how a variety of technology solutions are helping Alma stay connected with caregivers, friends and family members.

This is the 3rd installment of our 12-part series on the technologies that appear in our video. In this installment, I’ll be exploring technologies that can help prevent isolation by keeping older adults connected to important social outlets.

Social Connections: A Key to Preventing Depression

Between 1% and 4% of community-dwelling adults aged 60 and older experience major depression, according a recent Report to Congress on aging services technologies written by CAST and NORC at the University of Chicago. This depression is often under-diagnosed and under-treated. 

Less than 50% of older adults who are diagnosed with depression actually receive anti-depressant treatment. This is true even in nursing homes, where approximately 13% to 25% of residents have a diagnosis of depression.

Social isolation is a risk factor for depression. This isolation is present in as many as 35% of older adults in assisted living facilities, according to statistics cited in our report.

The Role of Technology in Promoting Social Connectedness

In the CAST video, Alma uses a computer with video conferencing capability and an Internet connection to remotely participate in the activities of a Virtual Senior Center. Alma can enjoy exercise and painting classes, and stay connected with friends, even after a stroke limits her ability to leave her apartment.

Other technologies can also help reduce the social isolation that could lead to, or be caused by, depression. They include:

  • Phones: Amplified, captioned and easy-to-use memory phones give older people an easy way to keep in touch with loved ones. Phones with enhanced caller ID help users with memory loss identify their callers in advance. These phones display a picture of the caller and information about the relationship between the caller and the call recipient. Some cell phones offer basic phone service and have simple designs and features. Smart phones may provide video reminders, multimedia messaging and simplified interfaces for social networking applications. 
  • Internet access: Older adults can stay in touch with family and friends by using senior-friendly computers and simplified computer interfaces for e-mail and the Internet. These computers can connect older adults with friends, entertainment and information about topics of interest. Internet-based social networks can also help alleviate feelings of loneliness and alienation among older people. Vibrant and growing communities for older adults now exist, and future technologies promise to expand these social networks. This type of Internet access has been shown to relieve isolation and reduce depression.
  • Video games: Electronic games could help reduce depression in old age, especially when they encourage users to be physically active. Some video technologies let players interact through gaming communities that reduce social isolation among players. 
  • Video phones and video conferencing applications: These technologies relieve social isolation and loneliness by facilitating interactions between depressed individuals and their friends and family. Videoconferencing can also minimize guilt and worry on the part of family members who are unable to visit isolated relatives on a regular basis. 
  • Telemental health applications: Personal computers, video conferencing applications and videophones can also connect older adults with health care providers, who use them to assess, diagnose and treat depression remotely. 

Selection Tip #1: Gauge the User’s Preferences and Abilities

The first step in selecting a social connectedness solution is to make sure you understand the user’s preferences. For example:

  • Do they like music, puzzles, educational content? 
  • Do they prefer to chat by writing letters, voice, video or social networking? 
  • Are they comfortable using standard technologies? 
  • Do they have any special needs, like hearing or cognitive decline? 

Wellness assessments like COLLAGE and LifeConnect can help guide the selection of personalized socialization solutions. These assessments complement standard functional and cognitive assessments.

Test out several solutions until you find something that residents and clients like best. Intuitive user interfaces like the Xbox and Nintendo Wii work well for a broad range of older adults, including those who are not comfortable with standard computer interfaces. Simplified touch-screen user interfaces are also popular.

Selection Tip #2: Choose a technology that families will support.

Are you considering a technology that involves 2-way interactions, like video conferencing? Make sure that family and friends have a compatible technology. In addition, make sure that family members and friends are willing to use that technology to maintain sustained engagement with their isolated relative.

Selection Tip #3: Incorporate the technology into community life.

No matter what technology solution you choose, be sure to incorporate it into your activity and wellness programming. This will ensure sustained use and will help you successfully combat social isolation and depression among the older adults you serve.

For More Information

I recommend watching the full-version of the Alma video, and I would encourage you to check the social connectedness technologies section of CAST’s report on the State of Technology in Aging Services to find out relevant information and technologies.