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Training elderly in social media improves well-being and combats isolation

Elderly particularly enjoy Skype contact with friends and family

Ingrid Torjesen

Monday, 15 December 2014

Training older people in the use of social media improves cognitive capacity, increases a sense of self-competence and could have a beneficial overall impact on mental health and well-being, according to a study carried out in the UK.

A two-year project funded by the European Union and led by the University of Exeter in partnership with Somerset Care Ltd and Torbay and Southern Devon Health and Care NHS Trust gave a group of vulnerable older adults a specially-designed computer, broadband connection and training in how to use them. The research was part of the Ages 2.0 project, which aims  to assess the extent to which the internet and social media offer a tool for promoting active ageing and addressing the social isolation that is too often a feature of older age.

Participants were all vulnerable older adults between the ages of 60 and 95 years of age who were receiving support from Somerset Care Ltd. They were drawn both from people receiving care in the community and those living in any of the not-for-profit organisation's 31 residential care homes.

Half of the participants were randomly assigned to receive training and the other half to a control group who received usual care. The training involved the installation of an 'Easy PC package' consisting of a touch screen computer and keyboard, and a broadband internet connection. They were able to keep the computer for 12 months, including a three-month training period.

The researchers found that participants who received training became more positive about computers over time, and particularly enjoying connecting with friends and relatives via Skype and email. They had heightened feelings of self-competence, engaged more in social activity, had a stronger sense of personal identity and showed improved cognitive capacity. These factors indirectly led to overall better mental health and well-being.

Dr Thomas Morton of the University of Exeter, who led the project in the UK, said: "Human beings are social animals, and it's no surprise that we tend to do better when we have the capacity to connect with others. But what can be surprising is just how important social connections are to cognitive and physical health. People who are socially isolated or who experience loneliness are more vulnerable to disease and decline. For these reasons finding ways to support people's social connections is a really important goal. This study shows how technology can be a useful tool for enabling social connections, and that supporting older people in our community to use technology effectively can have important benefits for their health and well-being."

Emma Green, a care technologist from Somerset Care who delivered training to participants, said: "As the training programme developed with my participants their confidence grew and they were keen to tell me how family members had emailed back, Skyped or 'liked' a comment or a picture on Facebook.”

Mandy Seymour, chief executive at Torbay and Southern Devon Health and Care NHS Trust, said: "The challenges of supporting an aging population in the community are well documented - we encourage active aging with our local population by giving people opportunities to be independent and to enable them to be living well at home for longer.

"The positive results of the project are interesting and the healthcare community will look at how this could help to influence strategies for supporting the increasing number of vulnerable and ageing people in local communities."

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