May 26, 2011

AUSTRALIA: Only the lonely

SYDNEY, NSW / Australian Aging Agenda / News / May 26, 2011

By Stephen Easton

University of Sydney researchers need participants for a study that aims to find out how well social networking sites like Facebook, Skype and Twitter can help older people fight loneliness.

The two-year research project starts in June and will investigate the rapidly growing use of information technology among Australians aged 65 and over, and look at the popular websites as a way of socialising without leaving the house, and whether that encourages more interactions in the real world.

Professor Robert Steele, Chair of Health Informatics at the University of Sydney

Participants will get an introduction to social networking through Facebook, instant messaging, Skype and Twitter, as well as skills training in how to use common devices like mobile phones and mp3 players.

The experiences of the participants will be documented through focus groups, diaries and other methods, including data harvested from the social networking sites themselves, taking into account variables like age, gender, ethnic and cultural background, working status, any disabilities and level of independence.

Project leader Professor Robert Steele, Chair of Health Informatics at the University of Sydney, said he was particularly interested in recruiting people with limited mobility who live alone or with a carer, but those who are most isolated would also be the most difficult to recruit - which is where the aged care sector, and community aged care providers in particular, could help.

“One of the cohorts we want to get to are those who are genuinely isolated at the moment, and that’s going to be one of the challenges,” he said. “We want to see how [social networking] can have an effect on those who are very isolated, including people in rural areas.”

Professor Steele said the researchers believed that particular group was at greater risk of social isolation than those who are more mobile and live among peers, like in a nursing home or retirement village.

“[Nursing home or retirement village residents are] not the group where we’re perceiving the greater risk of social isolation – there will be cases who feel isolated in those environments – but we do see the greater risk to those who are living on their own or with a carer who have less ability to move and get out.

“That’s why the electronic medium looks promising, because it doesn’t require travel and could facilitate greater offline social engagement.

“This could translate to participation in clubs or volunteering for community activities. Such activities can provide an important way for those wishing to, to maintain a healthy social network as they age.

“Advances in medical and assistive technologies, along with developments that assist older adults to age-in-place in their own home imply that not just poor health but also social isolation are challenges that need to be addressed for overall healthy ageing.

“With the proportion of people aged over 65 predicted to double over the next 40 years, it’s essential that we examine ways we can support and enable older adults to live ‘interdependently’.”

Members of the multi-disciplinary research team come from the areas of health informatics, ageing, community health and occupational therapy, funded by an Applied Research Grant from the NSW government Office of Ageing.

Providers of community aged care can help with recruiting participants by contacting Professor Robert Steele

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