Dr Wendy Wrapson, a social psychologist at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) recently conducted a study funded by InternetNZ investigating digital access for older people living in residential aged care. The results have found that it is family and friends helping keep aged care residents digitally connected.
So what is digital connection for older people? This varies from person to person – some people enjoy their iPad, social media and watching movies online; for others, using a simple mobile phone may be as far as they go. Physical ability is also a contributing factor. Older people can have issues with eyesight, arthritis or other physical barriers making it difficult to use modern technology and websites which are generally designed with a younger market in mind.
Are older people interested in using the internet? Dr Wrapson “ In my experience from our research, there tends to be 3 groups – those who are really engaged with a reasonable level of skill and keen to learn more. Those with a little experience but perhaps are a bit nervous about using technology, they’re not always sure what they’re doing or how best to be safe. And finally those who don’t see a place for it in their lives.” Family and friends need to respect that no one should be pressured into using the internet. Dr Wrapson continues “It’s a tool but not the be all and end all. There are other ways to find information and to connect with other people. What is important is that older people have internet access if they wish to use it.”
This internet access could be as simple as someone projecting a computer across a common room in a facility and reading some headlines or watching videos online. This however brings up another point, which is residential aged care’s ability and willingness to provide internet access to residents, and for staff to have the know-how to support residents’ internet use. Residential aged care staff are often overworked and New Zealand currently does not have a Commissioner for the Elderly. We have an ageing population and while the physical health and well-being of residents is always a priority, any social interaction or connectivity can have a huge impact on a resident’s life.
With a particular interest in the social aspects of aging, , Dr Wrapson understands human nature’s need to experience the feeling of being close to others and that any digital technology should not be used in place of meeting in person. “Face to face interaction in aged care is still the gold standard. Internet based technology is an add on, it should only be used as a supplement to personal visits.” Dr Wrapson continues “For example, residents can get quite anxious if they are expecting someone to visit, and the person is running late. It can be hard to reach someone in aged care because they often don’t have a phone in their room. A text can help by giving the resident reassurance they haven’t been forgotten. Technology can therefore be used in simple ways.”
While some newer facilities are starting to provide computers for residents in communal areas such as libraries, many still need to catch up. Family and friends often help residents get an internet connection set up; however, people who do not have family or friends also need to be considered – they are the ones who can often become most isolated.
Further to family and friends and some facilities providing shared computers, Dr Wrapson’s research showed that some residents have a good knowledge of technology and are able to help other residents. One resident she interviewed used to be a teacher and said students at her school would volunteer to help residents at local aged care facilities. Someone who is retired and living independently with a good handle on technology could help at their local aged care residence.
While many people are concerned about their children’s safety on the internet the same goes for residents in aged care. Older people are particularly susceptible to scams. Although this is not Dr Wrapson’s particular area of research, she advises to be careful on the internet. “Any engagement in something older people enjoy can enhance their quality of life, but one still needs to exhibit caution – especially when interacting with other people. Be a bit aware that not everyone is a good person.”
So what does Dr Wrapson see happening in the future with digital connectivity in aged care facilities? “It is hard to predict what will happen with the fast pace of change in recent years. One thing that I think is going to happen within the next 10 or 20 years is that the majority of aged care residents will have technology installed in their accommodation which will fulfill a number of roles, such as keeping a record of their healthcare status and needs and providing a social function because they will be able to connect with facility and friends. Some rooms already have these installed. They need to be designed so they are simple to use where the resident only needs to press one button to initiate the function they require. People moving [to aged care residences] ARE the people who have used technology so there will be an expectation that they will be able to continue using technology. If aged care operators don’t keep up people will be choosing to go to aged care facilities that are.”
Whatever happens, it is clear that product designers, website designers, aged care facilities and internet providers need to start considering the ageing population now.
You can read Dr Wrapson’s full report here.