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Digital inclusion can help address loneliness and #AgeingBetter - if co-designed with older people

Originally published on 7/08/2015

Summary: the Big Lottery Fund report on Ageing in the UK suggests that any use of digital technology to help combat loneliness should be developed in the context of older people's preferences for traditional media, phones, and email. That throws up a challenge for BIG policy teams that might best be addressed through simulations and co-design, as well as a review of “what works”.

The Digital Inclusion section of the report on Ageing in the UK, which I wrote about yesterday, is particularly useful because it goes beyond people's use of computers and other devices, and puts that in the context of other media and methods that people use to get information and communicate.

Since the focus of concern is loneliness, it is important to find from the report that phone calls are most important, and television is seen as a main means of company. Overall, traditional media like TV, radio and print remain enormously important for older people.

Add-in that for people online, email is rated as far more important than social media, and you can build up a picture that's rather different from the UK as a smartphone society.

Here's slides about the report, which I've clipped from the pdf:

Traditional media

Phone call

Weekly reach

Time per day

The report, by Trajectory for Big Lottery Foundation, does emphasise that digital inclusion is hugely important when analysing loneliness among older people. As digital literacy increases, and people adopt tablets and smartphones, the scope for easily using online methods beyond email increases. That's evident from projects that BIG has funded, and, for example, the work of my friend John Popham.

The challenge for the BIG policy team is now - I hope - how to take forward the recommendation in the report:

The Big Lottery Fund should take advantage, wherever possible, to integrate technology into projects that support older people, as use of the internet and mobile communication devices can help to alleviate loneliness and reduce the impact of depression and lower subjective wellbeing – as well as helping connect individuals with essential services.

The work of John, and others in the digital inclusion field, shows that people will quickly get the potential of digital technology - particularly in the form of tablets - to inform, connect, entertain, and that it doesn't necessarily involve taking a course to learn computer-based office skills. It also shows that everyone's digital preference is different.

So not only do you have to think about how to design a digital solution for an individual - as we played through in this simulation for Age UK London - but also how digital will fit into the mix of other media that people use during their day.

The BIG blogger Baba A, wrote:

Our ‘Ageing in the UK’ report summarised that people in later life have more or less the same access to digital as everyone else, but just use it differently; and that they see social media as the least important. It could be suggested that the social media tool developers themselves may need to develop a platform that is more later life user-friendly?

I think it is more an issue - as I said yesterday - of “how to help people build the blend of newspapers, magazines, phone calls, visits, relationships and maybe online activities that is right for them”. Original reference here

It's also about how to develop the digital tech capacity of community and voluntary organisations that support older people. Volunteering is the other main route to combat loneliness that the report recommends - so digitally-enabling volunteers could have double benefits as they might act as mentors. Again, there's plenty of projects showing how this may be done.

If I can be a little self-serving in proposing ways forward for BIG policy and programmes, I would suggest using something like the simple co-design approaches Drew Mackie and I have developed, as well as reviewing past projects. The simulations allow you to develop a scenario reflecting the personal or organisational situation, and then within that create personas for the people you wish to benefit and those supporting them. Cards provide a range of tech and other options.

A “what works” review of projects supporting digital inclusion, older people and organisational development would provide the content for any simulation. Older people could help develop the personas, and then play through what would really work for each organisation or individual. We did very well in a couple of hours with Age UK London - so I'm sure a better-researched programme would yield a lot of insights.

In addition I do hope that BIG will provide an opportunity to bring together people who have worked in this field to share their experience … and to discuss what really works. There's plenty of other people with ideas to contribute. Blog posts are fine, but there's nothing like getting together for a chat.

Update: A new BIG post Some words of knowledge helpfully explains the role to the foresight research programme in an interview Pete Bailey, Head of Knowledge at the Big Lottery Fund. Finding will go to the innovative Accelerating Ideas programme, which is promising.

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