Research into technology for older people has traditionally revolved around assistive technologies, such as home monitoring systems, tools for managing health and aids to assist with physical and cognitive decline. Social connectedness, which has a vital impact to our sense of well being and ultimately our health, has generally been ignored. The number of older people using broadband in Australia has been increasing, but many are not engaging in Web 2.0 technologies, such as social media platforms.

Researchers from the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband Enabled Society (IBES) have teamed with Benetas to work on a research project, which will investigate the use of mobile and broadband technologies to alleviate social isolation in older people. This research aims to build an interactive technology that will meet the needs of the older community and address issues of social isolation.

The ‘Growing Older and Staying Connected’ project is being led by Associate Professor Frank Vetere, from the Melbourne School of Engineering’s Department of Computing and Information Systems. Associate Professor Vetere will work with colleagues Associate Professor Elizabeth Ozanne from the Department of Social Work at the University of Melbourne and Associate Professor Lars Kulik, also from the Department of Computing and Information Systems.

Established in 1948, Benetas is an aged care provider in Melbourne and Victoria, Australia, offering aged care facilities, aged care at home services, residential aged and respite care. The project will involve up to 20 Benetas clients, who live in their own homes and receive community aged care. Each will be given a 3G connected touch-screen tablet. Over a period of 18 months, researchers will evaluate if the clients’ use of the technology alleviates social isolation.

Associate Professor Vetere is excited about being a partner in this innovative new project. “We aim to shed new light on the practical benefits of technology to address social isolation. We are delighted to be working with older people, to empower them to use new technologies and to improve their social connectedness with the community,” he said.

The Australian Research Council will provide $195,000 for the three-year project and Benetas will provide an additional $20,000 per year. CEO of Benetas Sandra Hills welcomed the ARC funding and said that the project would provide information about better ways to help older people stay connected to the community through technology.

“Despite the increasing use of technologies in every part of our community, not a great deal has been designed or created in the technology arena specific for older people to adequately deal with social isolation,” Ms Hills said.