Using Technology for Social Engagement of the Aged

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Pamela Gibbons
Australian Catholic University

Kathryn Crawford, Novae Research Group,
Susan Crichton, University of Calgary,

A longstanding problem for senior citizens in Western society is the increasing social isolation that, for many, accompanies increasing age. Families may become geographically dispersed over time, contact may be lost with former work associates, and/or diminishing physical capacity may limit the aged person's ability to be socially engaged in the community in which they live. Such social isolation and reduced mental stimulation can contribute to clinical depression and retard new neuron growth, thus in itself accelerating the aging process (Fox, 2001).


Any situations in which aged persons are living in a socially impoverished environment are suitable for this pattern. Some environments, however, may be easier to target initially for study because, for other contributing reasons (e.g. inability to physically care for oneself) they have become centres of social isolation for those living within them (ironically, in a 'community' setting). Another context to be initially targetted is that of aged persons living alone who actively seek, but may not find, satisfying social engagement in, for example, club environments.


Much has been written of the power of new information and communication technologies to bring people together, to allow people to access vast amounts of information from almost anywhere, to engage everyone in a brave new world of digital community. Yet we are not so naive to assume that the mere existence of these technologies will produce such outcomes. Also, much has been written of the dangers of the 'digital divide': the growing accessibility gap to those technologies between, for example, the rich and poor, urban and rural, male and female. Another sector of society, cutting across all other demographic indicators, who are at risk of falling prey to the digital divide are the elderly.

The tragedy is that, at a time in the lives of the aged when physical and social factors may unavoidably result in their increasing social isolation, the possibility of employing technology to alleviate their isolation has been vastly under-explored. Perhaps it is too easily assumed that 'old people' and technology don't mix, or that somehow they do not have the mental capacity to cope with new technologies, or maybe through ignorance of what the technologies can offer them, the elderly have not created sufficient pressure in a business sense to attract the attention of developers. Yet, in an aging Western population, this is a matter of social and economic responsibility that cannot be ignored. In Australia, it is the elderly 'baby-boomers' who are expected to have a disproportionate share of wealth in the near future. Information and communication technologies exist that can alleviate social isolation and provide mental stimulation. It is proposed that a pattern be developed to address this issue, bringing the technology and the elderly together in productive and sustainable physical and digital environments.

The pattern to be developed, therefore, is twofold: promote social settings in which the elderly have constant and convenient access to information and communication technologies; and develop software interfaces which are sensitive to the specific needs of the elderly. This recognizes that there is more to engaging an aged person in a virtual community than giving them access to a computer (although this is part of it). We must investigate what features of that virtual community and its interface will ensure a socially satisfying experience for this specific sector of our society. Elements of existing patterns for inclusive interface design are informative (e.g. Bowe, 2000) and may provide the basis for the development of a specific interface design pattern for the aged. We also need to choose or re-design the contexts in which elderly people can access the virtual community in the most satisfying way.


By establishing a collaborative consortium of hardware company, telecommunication company, internet service provider, and training/support provider (accessing available government funding), it is possible to provide convenient, staffed internet/email access centres for the aged. These must be located in sites physically accessible to the aged persons (in the first instance, nursing homes and clubs) to open the door to a vast virtual community. In conjunction with providing physical access to necessary technologies, a pattern of interface design and meaningful activities for the aged (engaging the elderly in the process) must be developed to ensure that their specific needs are met.

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