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Islands of opportunity

11 December 2017

It’s a paradox of modern times. The easier communication has become, the more quickly isolation and loneliness has spread, particularly among older adults. Is there a high-tech way to create new joined-up communities? Maybe, says Niall Hayes, but only by getting the low-tech right first. 

We know we have an ageing population, and we know what problems this brings, particularly in a society that’s increasingly mobile and less attached to a community and more traditional social activities. According to Age UK, 3.9 million older adults see the TV as their best form of company. It’s bad for mental health - and also physical health, with a recent research study claiming loneliness increases risk of death by 26%, equivalent to smoking and obesity.

But we’re being too downbeat. The solution to the “loneliness epidemic” can be found in taking a more constructive view of the situation and our population of older adults. The over 60s constitute a large and ever-growing group containing very capable, active people with a will and the time to get involved with community activities and schemes. One of the surprises from our research into the use of digital technologies among older adults has been the numbers who already work as volunteers and are looking for other ways to get involved. They’re a largely untapped source of smart, sparky, sociable people who could bring new life to arts projects, health and fitness clubs, social enterprises and local improvement schemes - the kinds of activities that make local areas good places to live in for everyone. But local communities are riddled with gaps in knowledge, in a lack of supportive links between older adults and awareness of where the opportunities are.

A digital switch?

The use of cheap digital devices - smartphones and tablets - looks like an obvious answer. In business and in society more generally we’ve come to see digital platforms and communications as the simple answer to delivering low-cost access to knowledge and services. Just flick a switch and people will come. But the situation with older adults is far more complicated, and also more important when it comes to the future of social cohesion and the health of our older population.

The South Lakeland area of Cumbria provides a magnified example of the problems. It has the lowest density of population in the UK; there’s relatively little mobility: 99% were born in the UK; it’s rural and people live in small villages and isolated properties. 33% of the population is over 60 compared with national average of 23% - a high proportion live alone - and there’s also a 48% increase projected in numbers of over 65s by 2037, since 2012.

Our research has looked at the practicalities of using mobile devices to link older adults into their Lakeland communities and with each other. How suitable is the available technology, is it accessible? What kinds of apps are genuinely useful, and how is it possible to ensure there’s a flow of timely and accurate information?

There are some immediate barriers. The technical infrastructure is relatively shaky, with a poor broadband service where it’s available. An Age UK survey of members in the area found that only 17% have any access to the Internet. Radio broadband might be an option for businesses but it isn’t realistic for many individuals given the high costs involved. There is also the issue of attitudes to digital technology and the use of social media in particular. The generations of older adults we spoke with had not grown up with computer technology - it wasn’t used as part of their education, often wasn’t part of their work either, and so hadn’t become part of their daily routine or assimilated into their way of thinking. In South Lakeland older adults have typically been working in farming or in the nuclear or shipping industries and much of the work was manual. For younger generations, digital communications have been accepted as a facilitator of social lives, the way to stay in touch with large numbers of people and extend our circles. But older adults see through to the root problem: does technology increase social contact, or actually, work more as a form of replacement? If I sign up to Facebook, does that mean family and friends are more likely to send updates and shares rather than make the trip to spend real time with me? If I use online shopping that takes away the need for my regular excursion into town, to meet people, to have the chance to spend time among the crowds.

Keeping it real

Our project, Mobile Age, is looking to develop an infrastructure that mixes hi-tech capabilities with low-tech support to demonstrate that digital communications are not an end in themselves, but a lever that can lead to more direct contact with people.

Co-creation is at the heart of the project. We’re not telling older adults in South Lakeland what’s going to work for them, they’re telling us. A group of more than a hundred people have been involved with providing insights and information, including a core group of 10 working on testing and giving feedback on particular approaches.

The focus is on an app, or just access to information, that allows and encourages older adults to plan their weeks, to provide a structure of opportunities for social interaction, to see what’s coming up - so even if they’re living alone they know that’s only one, temporary, part of their routine. The app would be personalised and flag up clubs and other group activities, courses, shows and events that are relevant and likely to be of interest to them, just as the basic service. But more importantly it will make taking part practical. The app will provide real-time information on weather, if there will still be daylight for the journey there and back, what the route is like if it’s walkable, and if it’s not, the available transport services - not just official bus times, but other local volunteer schemes and services that would help. There’s already a scheme in the local town of Kendal where shop owners allow access for shoppers to their toilets - and it’s this kind of useful local information which could be shared.

The app would also ideally let the users know who else within their social groups of friends will be attending an activity - another big motivation. With this group, however, there is also a greater sensitivity to sharing information, of the intrusion of spam and unwanted business approaches. It’s a challenge we’re still considering with the co-creators, how there might be potential for a ‘buddy scheme’ and sharing details on an opt-in basis.

Devices like tablets and smartphones have become cheaper and more intuitive in terms of how they’re used to access apps, but there’s no guarantee older adults will want to use them regularly, which is why the project is looking at the role for intermediaries, the neighbours, friends and family. We are also recommending the creation of terminals, or at least screens, available at existing community groups and activities so that all attendees get into a routine of accessing information and planning their next participation. The project is exploring the potential for what’s become known as ‘frugal innovation’, and using SMS text messaging - as evidence shows that older adults in this area will have mobile phones if not smartphones.

Scaling up

South Lakeland is one example, with its own issues relating to its own local character and terrain. And that’s the point. We will be writing policy briefs for the EU and UK government, which will have a core relevance to supporting older adults in both rural and urban areas. There is a need to keep the principle of co-creation at the heart of any initiatives in practice, to look closely at the local demographic and their needs; build outwards using what’s common where we can, but not starting with the generic.

There is great potential in the approach for scaling up with the support of local authorities and campaigning groups such as Age UK, as well as social enterprises. But there are serious challenges involved in order to reach the goal of solving the loneliness and isolation issue by galvanising the existing qualities and strengths of older adults. Fundamentally, there’s a need for open data (a requirement in terms of the EU funding) and that means signing up organisations of all kinds, local groups and individuals willing to provide reliable data that feeds into the type of app described. The data providers need to have a stake in the accuracy of what’s provided. And most of all, any work with older adults around digital communications has a responsibility not to have a detrimental effect on their experience and attitudes towards the technology: not to replace any social contact, not open them up to unwanted messaging - particularly from commercial providers – and not expose them to cybercrime. Work in this area needs to be focused on making the technology human-shaped and linked consistently back into real life.