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February 28, 2019

Social Isolation Among Older Adults: What Role Can Technology Play?

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Have you ever taught a grandparent, or even a parent, how to send a text message, post a status on Facebook or call someone on FaceTime? While millenials are accustomed to using electronic devices and social media every day, navigating new technology can feel like rocket science for older adults. As we reach important milestones in our lives — graduating from college, moving to a different city, or starting a new job — it is sometimes easy to forget that our relatives are growing older and more socially isolated.

To address this topic, Dr. Sara J. Czaja, director of the Center on Aging and Behavioral Research at Weill Cornell, gave a presentation on how technology usage can play a role in alleviating social isolation among older adults on Wednesday, February 27 in King-Shaw Hall’s ILR Conference Center.

Under the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, Czaja’s unique career field combines both engineering and psychology and looks to technology as a solution to aging associated social isolation.

According to Czaja, social engagement refers to a person’s degree of participation in their community or in society in general. Social isolation differs from loneliness as it is specifically attributed to a lack of social engagement rather than an emotion.

“As one gets older, the opportunities for social engagement become more restrictive,” Czaja said.

Czaja also stated that social isolation is common among older adults due to a variety of factors, which include fewer social networks, loss of loved ones, chronic illnesses, disabilities and diminished financial resources. This evidence is compounded by data from the American Association of Retired Persons that suggests up to 30 percent of older adults suffer from loneliness, eight million older adults are isolated and 28 percent of older people live alone.

According to Czaja, social interventions are a good solution to aging related social isolation and can have a wide range of benefits. However, to be effective, these interventions must be structured in a specific way. Czaja found that the most beneficial mediations offer social activities and support, are in a group format and have active participants.

“There are different dimensions of social engagement, and the reason I point this out is that understanding that there are different dimensions gives us opportunities for structuring interventions,” Czaja said.

She also claimed that technology can be a powerful tool in conducting these social isolation interventions, as it provides access to information and services and opportunities for social support.

One technology-incorporation project that Czaja and her team have developed is the Personal Reminder Information and Social Management System, or PRISM, which is a computer-based system that helps older adults improve their technology and computer skills through teaching and workshops.

“People really got more proficient the more they used PRISM,” Czaja said.

Czaja’s additional computer-based programs include the Center for Research and Education on Aging and Technology, or CREATE, which works to improve cognition and decision making for older individuals and the Fittle Senior System (FSS), which helps seniors manage physical and financial well-being.

According to Czaja, technology has proven to be a successful way to combat social isolation among older adults, and can gradually bridge the gap between older and younger generations.

“Everyone needs to have access to both grandparents and grandchildren in order to be a full human being,” Margaret Mead, who was a well-known American anthropologist, said in a quote that was included in the interface of PRISM 2.0.

So, the next time you help a parent or grandparent with using technology, remember that your assistance can benefit both of you in the long run.

The talk was sponsored by BCTR (the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research) at the College of Human Ecology. It was a part of BCTR’s Talks at Twelve Series, and it was co-sponsored by the Graduate Field of Human Development.