A huge opportunity to address the problem of social isolation among seniors in long-term care (LTC) facilities lies in digital technology and social media. Currently, over 40 % of individuals in LTC facilities and nursing homes have no visitors. This lack of contact with family and friends, compounded by well-intentioned but over-worked care staff, often leave LTC residents isolated. Researchers have found greater deterioration in mental and physical health when seniors are socially isolated. To coin Apple’s jargon, “There’s an app for that”, yes, indeed, there could be!
Statistics Canada reported that the number of Canadians aged 75 and older who are online grew from 5 % in 2000 to 27 % in 2012. Over half of these online seniors belong to a social networking site. An innovative app such as Seniors Share and Care Together (SSCT) would be specifically intended to allow the frank exchange of thoughts and ideas with other similarly situated seniors in LTC facilities. The app would be used as a peer support group, similar to Reddit, where “they understand what you’re going through”. Seniors would be able to connect with others in a similar circumstance by discussing their hobbies, where they grew up, and even their health. As a Reddit user tells the Toronto Star, “the fact that there are strangers out there who can see and appreciate and get inspired from you, people that you wouldn’t have never known … it’s definitely a confidence boost”4. Studies show that 26 % of residents in nursing homes, personal care homes and LTC facilities have been diagnosed with depression while another 18 % have related symptoms. A research project at Michigan State University sampling over 3000 retirees found that internet use helps to reduce depression. The social attachments made through SSCT will create friendship, support and an associated decrease in loneliness. This in turn would result in better health outcomes.
SSCT would have a matching feature similar to Tinder which would allow the senior to input their interests and circumstances to find a friend to connect with. Matching features could include, “I was born in Northern Ontario”, “I am a war pensioner”, “I was a nurse for many years”, and “I played the violin”. This feature would find a match and the exchange would begin. The SSCT app would be available across all platforms (website, smart phone app, tablet app) to allow as many LTC residents to participate. The app would also be bilingual to embrace the large senior Francophone population in cities such as Sudbury, Ontario. There would also be no tracking or collecting of personal information. Statistics Canada found that 64% of older Canadians reported some form of security problem when using the internet. To ensure user privacy, safety encryption and both personal and LTC residence-specific passwords would be an absolute requirement to install SSCT in app stores. Through laptops, computers, or tablets, LTC residents would be the only ones who have personal and confidential access to the SSCT app.
Autonomy features would be a built-in requirement of the app. As a group, the elderly are too easily stereotyped as being incompetent or too heavily dependent on others. Seniors are not always given the dignity and respect they deserve, as ageism is a prevalent bias in Western society. SSCT would belong not to the LTC facility administration or nursing staff but rather to the seniors themselves. There would not be moderators, for instance, supervising or monitoring what is being shared as that would take away the senior’s internet independence. A reporting feature similar to Facebook would be present to ensure safe interest sharing. In the development of the app, it should ultimately be the residents themselves who determine what features it has. Facilitating focus groups and polling LTC residents would allow seniors to create a more personalized app and would help the SSCT developers know what features or aesthetics are needed. Senior engagement in the planning stages should lead to an increase in uptake of the app and a greater feeling of autonomy.
The implementation process into Canadian LTC facilities would be through the collaboration with Regional Health Authorities such as LHINs and CCACs as well as private LTC residences such as Extendicare. To generate excitement, SSCT would be marketed towards the LTC residents and there would be no direct costs to using the app.
Fourteen percent of the Canadian population is currently 65 years old or older, and this is projected to increase to 23 % in the next 15 years. In healthcare, one of the challenges with this changing demographic will be the rise in social isolation among the elderly, especially in LTC facilities. SSCT offers an innovative option to help alleviate the problem of senior isolation.
Angie is currently pursuing an Honours Specialization in Health Sciences from Western University along with an Honours Business Administration (HBA) degree from Ivey Business School. She plans to work as a healthcare consultant upon graduation.