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Kent County Council want technology to stop the elderly feeling isolated

By Caitlin Webb, local democracy reporter

Technology can promise an easier life for the elderly, helping them to stay independent and live for longer in their homes.

However this call for more gadgets in the home can also lead to confusion and essential face-to-face human contact being replaced with video chats or social media.

Vulnerable adults are being encouraged to turn on electronic devices to connect to others but experts in Kent claim this is not enough.

Technology could help older people feel less isolated
Technology could help older people feel less isolated

A researcher on ageism from the University of Kent, Dr Hannah Swift, believes “there is a place for technology” but companies are using it as “an excuse”.

While giving evidence at the Kent County Council select committee on social isolation and loneliness, Dr Swift said: “There is a bit of a place for technology but what I tend to see in the age sector is technology being used as an excuse for being a solution to a lot of different things like health care.

“We are always looking for a technological solution to everything and sometimes it’s not always the right thing to do because it’s the face-to-face interaction that people are actually missing most of the time.”

She added there has also been a “push back” from retirees due to fears of cyber security, which adds to their reluctance to learn how to use devices such as smartphones or tablets.

Dr Hannah Swift (4940445)
Dr Hannah Swift (4940445)

Despite this fear, an innovative scheme has been launched in Shepway to help elderly people who are not tech-savvy to connect with their family and friends in simple way.

Cllr Martin Whybrow (Green) has bought two devices from a Norwegian company, called No Isolation, which are designed to unite people through sharing photos and videos.

The device, called KOMP, has a screen on what resembles an old radio set with volume controls and an on/off switch.

Loved ones can send their photos and videos through an app on their phone and even video call the owner.

KOMP is used by people to share pictures and videos with loved ones (4940440)
KOMP is used by people to share pictures and videos with loved ones (4940440)

Cllr Whybrow said: “At the end of the day nothing beats face-to-face interaction but this device compliments visits and keeps them connected when people aren’t always there.

“It also gives them a focus for conversations so they can talk about what their family has been up to when they come round.

“This is the same with all technology- it’s not about replacing human connections but about helping with social isolation.

“The feedback from the two ladies, who have had the devices for almost two months, has been good.”

He added one of the testers, who is 84, has used the device to stay in touch with her grandson in South Korea despite her mobility challenges.

"It’s not about replacing human connections but about helping with social isolation..." - Councillor Martin Whybrow

While these devices have been welcomed by the two elderly women, Cllr Whybrow added an internet connection is essential yet the older generation do not always have access to one.

He said: “The only downside with the pilot has been the need to have internet. We’ve had to install an internet dongle in their homes for it to work.

“Thankfully most care homes have WiFi so it could work there but it would be great if future versions included some internet access like a dongle or 3g.”

This is also an issue with residents who live in Cllr Tony Hills’ ward, Romney Marsh, as retirees are missing out due to the price and reliability of broadband in rural areas.

Vulnerable adults are also often reluctant to let strangers into their homes to connect their phone lines to a WiFi router.

Cllr Martin Whybrow: "At the end of the day nothing beats face-to-face interaction"
Cllr Martin Whybrow: "At the end of the day nothing beats face-to-face interaction"

Cllr Hills said: “Things like broadband are vital to elderly people in rural areas and that coverage is critical.

“The quality of the signal from one end of the house to the other is going to get more and more important.”

Despite often patchy internet signal, Cllr Hills says older ladies feel less lonely when they gossip online on social media.

He added: “A lot of my community are ordinary people doing ordinary things but they have their groups on Facebook and they are on there everyday.

“It’s great because they all talk to each other and I think platforms like that will increase; that technology is going to grow and grow.

“As you get older you get less energy and you get less drive to do things and because of the physical side of aging, people feel scared to do new things but when they are using technology at home they are actually very confident and happy.”

Neighbouring county council, Essex, has embraced technology by funding trials of around 40 elderly residents having a computer tablet for video chats through care company Essex Cares Limited.

While the council argue this will make their care more efficient, it has received criticism from healthcare companies.

A new child-sized robot recruit, called Pepper, has joined Southend-on-sea borough council to help provide social care.

Pepper provides new child-sized robot recruit, called Pepper the robot provides social care for the elderly in Southend (4940434)
Pepper provides new child-sized robot recruit, called Pepper the robot provides social care for the elderly in Southend (4940434)

Pepper has worked at a residential care home to help those with dementia relive their past by playing videos on its built-in screen.

Essex CC has also taken advantage of the popularity of social media by getting in touch with group admins.

Head of strengthening communities, Kirsty O’Callaghan, said: “It’s about going where people go, it’s not rocket science.

“We decided to think about social media differently and we have mapped basically every place-based Facebook group in Essex.

“The reason why we did this was to get in touch with the admins because those administrators are high value informal volunteers and people listen to them.

“It’s really about community action and people coming together and literally helping one another and helping themselves out.

“I don’t think my role, as a council officer, is to organise everything but to be a convenor and an enabler.

“On the back of that work we have been offering mental health first aid training in pubs and soft play areas as people were asking for action after a member of the community tragically took her own life.”

A report from the select committee is set to be drafted at the end of this year and the final copy of their policy suggestions will be circulated early 2019.

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