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UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 4 | Apr. 3, 2008

Walk on the Wired Side Could End Isolation for Seniors

By Bud Mortenson

Connecting to the World Wide Web could ease the isolation felt by many seniors who lack meaningful social interaction in their lives. And for those needing a little help getting online, UBC Okanagan students are showing the way.

“Isolation is one of the top issues for seniors,” says Mary Ann Murphy, who holds a cross-appointment on aging as Assoc. Prof. of Sociology and Social Work at UBC Okanagan. “We hope connecting isolated seniors to a ‘virtual’ or real community of friends or family will have the effect of helping the person to stay attached to the world via, for example, enhanced communication or relationship building.”

Social isolation may contribute to depression, grief, stress, anxiety, alcohol and medication misuse, a failure to seek help when it’s needed, and an extremely high elder suicide rate -- particularly among older men, Murphy says.

In a pilot project this spring, Murphy and students from her Sociology 480: Aging, Diversity and Inequality class are working with the UBC Okanagan Learning Exchange and Kelowna’s Seniors Outreach Services Society to provide in-home basic computer training to a small group of homebound seniors in the region.

During five one-on-one visits by students with laptops, seniors are getting to know the personal computer and specific Internet applications. After just two visits, Kelowna senior Catherine Palmer says she is ready to learn a lot more about computers and hopes to connect online with friends in Ontario and other parts of the country.

“I have no family, except my son,” says Palmer, who moved from Toronto nearly two decades ago, retired in 1997, and no longer drives. “Keeping in touch with friends is really important, especially when you don’t have family around. You learn that as you get older.”

Because she is able to walk to her local bus stop, Palmer says, she is not as isolated as some seniors. “But winter is very isolating -- even walking to the bus in winter is a scary situation,” she says. “It would be nice to have contact with people when I can’t go out -- if I can learn to get on the Internet.”

The visits are giving seniors new tech skills, while students are learning about sharing their time and knowledge “and a little patience,” points out student Haley Oliver.

“How do you teach someone to use a mouse?” says Oliver. “It feels innate to me, but it’s an entirely new skill for a senior using a mouse for the first time. Showing someone who has never used a computer how to use one has given me a little bit more patience.”

The project is a powerful community service learning opportunity for students, and it’s helping a local agency re-engage isolated seniors in community life, says Phil Bond, manager of the UBC Okanagan Learning Exchange.

“Students are also researching emerging trends in technology used to combat seniors’ isolation -- social networks, for example,” he says. “As well, they’re identifying available funding opportunities, donor, rental or lease options for laptop and desktop computers for seniors.”

Student Tiffany Pang is involved in this research. “Most of my prior experience with seniors was in nursing homes and with my grandparents, who are very active,” Pang says. “I think the project is a great way to help alleviate seniors’ isolation because not only will it allow seniors to keep in touch with their families and friends, it will provide them with the opportunity to expand their social networks even if they’re unable to leave their homes.”

The Learning Exchange will host a public discussion once the student visits are complete this spring. “We’ll reflect on what surprised us, where we grew, and what assumptions and beliefs have been challenged,” says Bond.

“I hope the experience of the students blasts a pre-conceived myth that seniors are afraid to use computers,” says Professor Murphy. “The research tells us that computer literacy has more to do with exposure than age. And we hope to have the students observe some of the issues in adapting this technology to this population.”

The Okanagan has one of Canada’s oldest populations, says Murphy, citing the large number of retirees moving to the region.

“One future challenge is meeting the needs of those in-migrants who come here leaving kin behind and then encounter a physical challenge that restricts their ability to get out as often as they would desire,” she says.

“A lot of senior couples move here to retire together,” says Vi Sorenson, Executive Director of Seniors Outreach. “If one of them develops a major health problem or passes away, the retirement they thought they’d have together just doesn’t happen that way.”

Sorenson says some simple things -- such as being able to see online photo albums from far-away family members -- can make a real difference in the lives of isolated seniors.

“They get to see the kids growing up, and something like that really connects them to their families,” she says. “We see this as a way to help more homebound people -- it gives them a window to the world. It’s endless what it could bring to their lives.”

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Last reviewed 03-Apr-2008

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